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"The New Generation Gap"

By Bob Greene


I was talking with an eighteen-year-old girl, a senior in high school. She
said she wanted to ask me something.
"Who was Ed Sullivan?" she said.
I said I didn't think I understood the question.
"I mean, who was he?" she said. "Was he, like, your generation's David
Letterman?"
Not precisely, I said.
"Well, what did he look like?" she said.
I asked her if she meant that, were Ed Sullivan to walk into the room at
that very moment, she would not recognize him?
"No," she said. "I wouldn't."
Then she said:
"Did he look like this?"
She stood up and let her arms hang in front of her like an orangutan.
I said that actually he had, indeed, looked a little like that. Where had
she seen him?
"I think I saw him in a Beatles video," she said.
The Beatles hadn't made videos, I said; they had made movies.
"Let me ask you something else," she said.
I said to go ahead.
"Is it true that Elvis Presley and the Beatles made their first appearances
on the Ed Sullivan show?" she said.
I said basically that was true.
"Well, why did you watch them, then?" she said. "If they hadn't been on TV
before, how did you know that you wanted to see them?"
I said that we watched Ed Sullivan every week.
"You mean you watched his show no matter what was on it?" she said.
I said yes.
"I see," she said. "Kind of like MTV."
Alas... it has come to pass. My generation, which alienated the rest of
America in the Sixties and Seventies by acting as if we had created the
concept of youth, is now on the far side of a generation gap that excludes
millions of our younger countrymen who have no real memory of Ed Sullivan.
The young woman is not alone; there are millions upon millions of bright,
intelligent young people out there who are no more familiar with Iron
Butterfly or Dobie Gillis than we were with Rudy Vallee or Jack Armstrong,
the All-American Boy. To them Lyndon Johnson is as distant a figure as FDR
was to us; to them the idea of watching Jack Paar on television is as
unimaginable as our thoughts of listening to Fred Allen on network radio.
This shouldn't be so surprising, of course; it happens to every generation,
and it is probably a healthy thing.
But there has never been a generation that seemed so happily, smugly sure
that it was inventing the world for the first time than those of us in the
so-called Baby Boom. Because we represented a big hump in the country's
demographic profile, we always felt comfortably surrounded by others just
like us; there were so many members of our generation that often we felt
important just by being alive.
Which makes it all the bigger shock when we now realize that a completely
new generation has come along -- a generation that frankly regards us as
middle-aged and sort of quaint. The fact that they're right doesn't help any.
This phenomenon has even extended to politics. Those of us who grew up
during the war in Indochina and were still relatively young when Watergate
happened view the universe with a gimlet-eyed perspective that we always
considered sort of weatherbeaten and world-weary. We may have assumed that
the generations that came along after us would eagerly imitate our political
attitudes.
But as my eighteen-year-old acquaintance said to me:
"I'm real sorry about Vietnam and everything, but I don't see why your
generation hates the government and hates America so much."
Although she was oversimplifying, I knew exactly what she meant; it is far
more likely that a member of her generation will join the Marines than end up
marching on a picket line protesting some bit of American foreign policy.
My conversation with her was not the first time I have seen this new set of
attitudes come up. A few months ago I was talking to another teenager -- this
one seventeen years old -- and she mentioned that her parents liked to play
tapes in their car.
I asked her what kind of music her mom and dad played.
"You know, classical stuff," she said.
Like what? I asked.
"The Grateful Dead," she said.
And my old college roommate called me the other day to ask me if I'd seen
the current issue of Playboy -- the one that features a pictorial about young
men being romantically involved with older women.
"The 'older women' in the article are younger than we are!" he said. "The
'older women' are thirty-five years old!"
Oh, well. My eighteen-year-old acquaintance asked me another question about
what Ed Sullivan's show had been like.
I was going to tell her about Topo Gigio, but I didn't have the heart.


- Excerpted from Cheeseburgers: The Best of Bob Greene (New York: Atheneum,
1985).

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