Who killed the grown-up?

Scott has commented about Diana West’s excellent new book The Death of the Grown-Up. Diana’s basic argument is that we have become a nation of perpertual adolescents. We can’t say no and we don’t know right from wrong (or, what is almost the same, to the extent that we do know we refuse to insist on this knowledge). This state of affairs caused the “conservative” side to lose the so-called cultural wars of the 1980s. And that defeat leaves us ill-equipped, if not unable, to fight the true cultural war we now find ourselves in — the war against the culture of Islamic jihad.
I had unthinkingly expected Diana to attribute the “death of the grown-up” to the rise of the baby boomers. But actually, she argues persuasively that this phenomenon is traceable to the 1950s, early in the “watch” of the “Greatest Generation” (the GG), and long before boomers could make their (our) distinctive contribution.
The view that exalts the GG over the baby boomers has always struck me as overstated. For one thing, the GG raised the baby boomers and must accept some of the responsibility if we’re a generation of wash-outs. For another, how great can a generation that gave us Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and (with and assist from the boomers) Jimmy Carter, plus all the bad policies associated with them, be? It’s impossible to read David Frum’s How We Got Here: The 70s and retain unadulterated admiration for the Greatest Generation.
I asked Diana why, as she put it in her response, the “GG petered out as an influence for
cultural continuity.” Pulling together various stands from her book, she answered as follows:

1. Prosperity/money/– After World War II, Dad was less likely to be sole breadwinner–an economic development that diminished what it meant to be head of the family. More wives had started working during war and many continued. Teens were also working–and contrary to pre-War Depression Days when a young person would contribute earnings to family kitty, they were pocketing their money. They were also getting allowances on a scale unprecedented in history.
2. Newly moneyed youth and the newly emerging youth market were huge factors in the transfer of cultural authority from adult to young people–and infanitlization of the culture.
All this new stuff not only satisfied passing teen tastes, it validated them.
3. New “Authorities” Competing with Parents: In response to youth market, see, for example, explosion of adolescent-targeted magazines, among other newly minted “experts. These titles replaced, tout court, the advice that parents themselves were once expected to give. (Early intrusion of media culture into family life.)
4. In the entertainment industry, the notion of being a gatekeeper in charge of cultural output, or sometime-model of any kind (even sometimes), disappeared. Think about how Louis B. Mayer,
for example, refused to make movies in which a mother was bad character! Contrast this with the repetitiousness of the dopey/evil parent (father) motifs developed in movies and TV by 1950s and on. This stepping down from being gatekeepers was surely partly a response to the lucrativeness of the youth market, but it also reflected the loosenings in population at large induced, no doubt, in response to a couple of decades of mass pop culture –something new, obviously, to the species. Of course, despite the loosening of the population at large, the blunt sexualization of music mainstream, etc. by the 1950s pitted the expanding younger generation and burgeoning media culture against lowly parents (squares). Parents (traditionalists) lost. Another marginalization of GG.
5. Explosion in higher education. Suddenly, for the first time ever, a major chunk of the population’s children were getting college and higher degrees–degrees their parents didn’t have. This, too, helped marginalize that parental influence (my son the college graduate knows best).
6. I think Peter Berger’s observations, too, about the new emotional focus parents could direct on fewer children who tended to survive childhood is no small factor in youth’s elevation and adulthood’s demise. This may help explain why parents were later so accomodating of their student-revolutionary offspring.
In short, I think the new post-war world marginalized the GG as force of cultural continuity. Unprecedented prosperity was probably the main infantilizing force, but many factors were at work here, and they all tended to push the adults to one side, where, of course, they were busy
making up for lost wartime getting on with their lives and raising their, um, booming families. One of the more interesting explanations I found comes from rock historian Phillip Ennis, whose Elvis theory–in sum, that “Elvis [who, of course, was too young for action in WWII or Korea] delegitimized the adults’ command over these kids by making any authority conferred by WWII irrelevant.” Irrelevant! I think he’s right. It fits into the mix. Of course, I still find the behavior of too many grown-ups who should have known “better”. . .to be just plain insane.

To comment on this post, go here.


Books to read from Power Line