A recent article by Peter Beinart on "The Rise of the New Left" explores early-20th-Century sociologist Karl Mannheim's "political generation" theory -- that our political views are laid down in the rough decade when we are between 18 and 25 or so.
And it's a fascinating exercise to explore what was or is happening in the world during your politically-defining decade.
Beinart tells us that Mannheim:
argued -- and later scholars have confirmed -- people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period -- between the time they leave their parents' home and the time they create a stable home of their own -- individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste.
Of course advertisers have understood this phenomenon for years, which explains why they aim their messages at teens and twenties, hoping to capture their product loyalty during these formative ages.
So what -- and where -- is or was your defining decade? When and where did you turn 18? What was going on politically, socially, culturally, environmentally and economically before you turned 30?
My defining decade was approximately 1961 - 1973 in Montreal, Quebec and Los Angeles, California. At the start of this period I was a conventionally-minded, Anglophone undergraduate studying English and French literature at McGill University in Montreal at a time when the English Protestant minority and their descendents had been lording it over the large French Catholic minority far too long -- since 1759, in fact. During my defining decade all that illusory power rapidly evaporated and the French minority at long last found a way to be "maitres chez nous" -- masters in their own house. Not only the hated English overlords but also the Catholic hierarchy rapidly lost power -- without much violence. An aggrieved majority of citizens had simply decided that enough was enough.
This was also the era of the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination, whose impact reached us even in Canada. First we were terrified of being killed by a nuclear bomb and then we were in tears and despair that a seemingly progressive President had been murdered. How could such things happen? And other shocking assassinations followed later in the decade: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, foreshadowing the rise of the resistance to progressive change.
Of course it was the 1960s and a cultural revolution seemed to be happening everywhere. I went to graduate school in Journalism at UCLA where I met traumatized Vietnam vets who told of their terrible experiences. Most of the young men I knew, including the wonderful husband I married during this decade, were concerned about the draft. Rock music exploded. The civil rights, sexual liberation, gay rights and women's revolutions turned things upside down. And in my late 20s I went to work for environmental activist Captain Jacques Cousteau. The political lesson for my generation seemed clear: those seemingly in power can be toppled surprisingly quickly when the times are right and the general public wakes up to inequities and stupidities.
But of course all of these battles are still far from won. And in fact we now find ourselves in far more threatening circumstances in the second decade of the 21st Century: an overpopulated and polluted planet, ecological disaster, shocking inequities.
Perhaps this is why I resonate so strongly with the Millenial generation's aspirations. Right now it seems impossible that progressive forces will ever prevail in the political, cultural, economic or environmental spheres. But just wait! "The times they are a changin'" as still-popular revolutionary bard Bob Dylan taught us in my defining decade and as Peter Beinart points out in his article.
Many of us from the politically-defining decade of the 1960s were heartened and then saddened by the brief success of the 99%-championing Occupy movement that now seems very much last year's news. We recognized deep in our bones the youthful power, passion and impulse that can overturn the arrogant and greedy. Perhaps the best legacy from that seemingly ephemeral protest against the status quo -- and many other revolutionary sparks over the last decade -- is the reassurance that it is a historical fact that when a majority of citizens, from whatever defining decade or corner of the earth, becomes truly fed up with stupidity, arrogance and greed by the few, change is possible.
So what's your defining decade? And when and how will you and your generational cohort, in collaboration with those from other cohorts, take power to address the increasingly urgent political, economic and environmental threats and inequities we all continue to face?