We have quite a lot to live up to when considering the highlights of previous generations. In the 1950s, Martin Luther King Junior and the African American Civil Rights Movement gathered momentum. The 1960s was an era of social, political and cultural upheaval, where counter-culture flourished and normality was challenged. Hippie culture faded in the 1970s, but aggression towards the establishment and the peace movement remained. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan cast shadows over the 1980s, Live Aid rocked the world, and pro-democracy movements in the East defied authority. The bravery and passion of those who we now represent, the students, were poignantly captured in one image; that of the Unknown Rebel in Tiananmen Square. In the 1990s, New Media gained a foothold in every household as a generation displayed the need for personal expression and socio-political freedom after the industrialised desolation of the 1980s.
This is what we remember from the decades that have come before us. However each decade that has passed comes with a caveat. The flower power of the 1960s saw a huge spread in dangerous drug abuse. The underlying catalysts for mai ’68 were clouds of apathetic bourgeois intellectualism. MTV numbed the minds of the young from its beginnings and, by the mid-1990s, the cult of celebrity killed Kurt Cobain and social responsibility was rejected.
The negative aspects of passing generations are numerous, but there is a reason that the darker side of each is not remembered as well as the positive. There has always been icons, symbols and soundbites, but the one thing that has persisted is substance, or a driving set of ideals. Since World War II, the youth of society has been active, developing ideas and agendas of social, political and cultural relevance. Youth has acted on those beliefs for better or worse, often defying the status quo. For all that I would love to believe otherwise, substance is what our generation lacks.
We have undoubtedly had highlights. We have elected a black man to the Presidency of the World. The environment has belatedly emerged atop political agendas. Depending on your own leanings, we are either braving a relentless financial recession or observing the international display of some of the inherent failings of capitalism. So will we too be remembered positively? I hope not.
Our generation has spat on intellectualism, making intellectual engagement something to be looked down on. We have killed social interaction, indulging in social networking sites and making sure all that was once lived is now experienced through some kind of representation, a simulation which slowly eradicates that which it initially mimicked. Our generation has seen to it that the voice of youth and the power of protest have grown to be as impotent as the old ideals that we can now barely articulate. Our generation has actively mutated some of the achievements of previous decades including repackaging the liberation of women as Sex and the City. We have made self-expression a homogenous product that can be bought in high street shops. Our generation has ignored our collective human conscience; letting the world rot despite being in the most privileged position we have ever been in.
There are always exceptions. Some people have engaged. Some people have been good for the world. But our knowledge of past generations proves that generational history is just a series of generalisations coloured by the dominant ideology. All we remember are generalisations cut into decades, maybe even given a name to be remembered by.
We could prove to have been detrimental to the progression of the world of the future. It might be better if we are cut adrift. We could be used as an example of how a generation can go wrong, something to learn from, improving the prospects of those to come. For the future, it is essential that we are remembered as what we really have been, because only if our memory is a negative one can our legacy be a positive one.
Noted social and political commentator Timothy Garton Ash, has suggested that this is the “decade without a name,” but I wonder, would the “decade without an idea” be just as apt? Our generation should be separated from what has preceded us and what will follow us. We should be judged by what we have done, by what we have contributed to humanity; very little indeed.