Millennium has the potential to unify

However insignificant the changeover to the new millennium might be, the effects on people throughout the world have been profound. Americans especially, however, have been seriously anticipating the advent of the next millennium since the beginning of the ’90s, preparing for the most significant cultural occasion since the ’60s.
Our generation, however, is especially fortunate to be simultaneously participating in this transition during the height of our youth. Throughout the past century of American cultural history, each major generation’s period of youth has coincided with events or struggles that have been shared parts of significant periods of transition.
During the first part of the century, in the late to middle 1910s until the 1920s, America’s involvement in World War I and the dissonance that followed preoccupied our culture and the ambitions of the young. World War I was a significant moral struggle during which a generation experienced its youth. The war unified that generation’s experiences, as the many who fought in the war shared a sense of futility that followed its end. That generation was referred to as the “lost generation” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, as in the early ’20s many young people shared the sense that after the war, there was no sense of purpose. Many became ex-patriots abroad, and many became flappers, living similar lifestyles despite the distances between. While the members of this generation were unified first by the war, afterward they were unified by the lack of purpose.
During the late 1930s and through the middle of the 1940s, America’s involvement in another war, World War II, again preoccupied the lives of the younger generation. For Americans, World War II was a great moral endeavor, that if lost, would subject humanity to a future of brutal tyranny. Most of the generation’s young men fought in the war in Europe, many leaving home for the first time in their lives. The generation’s young women participated equally, either as nurses for the allies or on the munition assembly lines in the United States. For most of these people, the war remained the most significant time in their lives, a period to look back on with a variety of emotions.
The 1960s were perhaps the most volatile of the century’s periods of transition, and the most significant for a generation’s youth. Although in the ’40s a fundamental change was effected from abroad, in the ’60s a fundamental change was effected from within. The nation was experiencing a thorough restructuring, as well as participating in a fervidly contested war. Many men of this generation were drafted to fight in a war borne out of anti-Communist anxieties from the ’50s — anxieties that were convinced of America’s imminent takeover.
The implementation of racial equality regulations was further dividing Americans, as the realization of African-Americans’ rights was being opposed. The assassination of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy further convinced youth of the world’s sinister side. The generation’s youth reacted with possibly the most successful singular cultural identity. Woodstock became their shared celebration, Timothy Leary their mentor and anti-authoritarianism their purpose.
Recently, however, the coincidence of a major generation’s youth with a significant period of change has not occurred. There was, of course, Watergate in the early ’70s, energy crises in the late ’70s, the Reagan revolution in the ’80s and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late ’80s, but none of these events were significant for American youth. And none of these events were influenced by American youth.
We have not experienced a unifying event like preceding generations have. There has not been an event, a struggle or a purpose that most members of our generation have simultaneously experienced, and which has coincided with our youth. While there have been many interests shared across demographic groups, an episode of “Beverly Hills 90210” or the Lewinsky scandal are not important cultural transformations. Recently, the culture of youth has actually become much more diverse.
Within the past few decades, electronic culture has increased this diversity. There are no longer only a few types of music young people commonly listen to. Our generation frequently listens to rap, techno, bad pop rock, old jazz, old classic rock and other old singers. And even these categories can be further divided; rap has at least half a dozen forms, and techno is a broad term that refers to many related forms of music.
Television has become much more individualized as well. Within the past 15 years, the number of national television networks has doubled. Cable television offered only 100 channels and was succeeded by satellite television, which offers 500. And the rapid expanse of the Internet has dramatically increased access to cultural options.
The number of youthful stereotypes has also diversified. No longer is one either a jock, preppy or nerd. There are skaters, punks, old-school snowboarders, snowboarders whose parents buy them their boards and their Pathfinders, hippies who smell like patchouli, techno club-hoppers, pseudo-intellectuals, intellectuals, young Republicans, young Democrats, young Reform Party members and DJ-type guys who dress like Eminem. Although occasionally a barbell-pierced tongue or a Pavement fan will transcend these differences, there are many more distinct members of the young generation.
While the millennium might not challenge convictions like the ’60s, or be as much of a moral imperative as World War II was, it is a unifying event that almost all members of our generation will experience. More importantly, it will be a unifying event that coincides with our youth. Although past generations have simultaneously experienced national transition and their youths, recent generations have not. It is certainly preferable to an energy crisis, Reaganomics or the Gulf War.
It is irrelevant whether transitions are the result of the enthusiasm and idealism of a major generation’s youth, or if these periods of transition have elicited the enthusiasm and idealism of youth. The significance of this New Year is not necessarily an arbitrary change of assigned dates. It is significant, however, because it provides an experience to be shared among many.
We are fortunate to be in our late teens or early 20s during the changeover to the next millennium. For once, as youths and as a species, there is the feeling that there will be no more boundaries ahead of us. When we look ahead, whether through the rest of our lives or through the next millennium, we only see years whose contents we could never begin to predict.
Dan Maruska is a Daily columnist. Send comments to [email protected]