Thursday, January 2, 2020

What The Young Adults of 1920 Thought of the World They Were Inheriting

A century ago, John F. Carter wrote an essay about “These Wild Young People’ by One of Them,” in the Atlantic Monthly (September 1920,  pp. 301-304, an excerpt is here, although as far as I know the entire essay isn't freely available online). It offers a useful reminder that complaints from young adults about the terrible world they are inheriting, so much worse than any previous generation ever inherited, are nothing new. Enjoy the 100 year-old version of the classic young-to-old intergenerational rant:
For some months past the pages of our more conservative magazines have been crowded with pessimistic descriptions of the younger generation, as seen by their elders and, no doubt, their betters. Hardly a week goes by that I do not read some indignant treatise depicting our extravagance, the corruption of our manners, the futility of our existence, poured out in stiff, scared, shocked sentences before a sympathetic and horrified audience of fathers, mothers, and maiden aunts - but particularly maiden aunts. ...

I would like to say a few things about my generation.
In the first place, I would like to observe that the older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us. They give us this Thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don't
accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, 'way back in the eighteen-nineties, nicely painted, smoothly running, practically fool-proof. 'So simple that a child can run it!' But the child could n't steer it. He hit every
possible telegraph-pole, some of them twice, and ended with a head-on collision for which we shall have to pay the fines and damages. Now, with loving pride, they turn over their wreck to us; and, since we are not properly overwhelmed with loving gratitude, shake their heads and sigh, 'Dear! dear! We were so much better-mannered than these wild young people. But then we had the advantages of a good, strict,
old-fashioned bringing-up!' How intensely human these oldsters are, after all, and how fallible I How they always blame us for not following precisely in their eminently correct footsteps! 
Then again there is the matter of outlook.. When these sentimental old world-wreckers were young, the world was such a different place ... Life for them was bright and pleasant. Like all normal youngsters, they had their little tin-pot ideals, their sweet little visions, their naive enthusiasms, their nice little sets of beliefs. Christianity had
emerged from the blow dealt by Darwin, emerged rather in the shape of social
dogma. Man was a noble and perfectible creature. Women were angels (whom they smugly sweated in their industries and prostituted in their slums). Right was downing might. The nobility and the divine mission of the race were factors that led our fathers to work wholeheartedly for a millennium, which they caught a glimpse of just around the
turn of the century. Why, there were Hague Tribunals! International peace was at last assured, and according to current reports, never officially denied, the American delegates held' out for the use of poison gas in warfare~ just as the men of that generation were later to ruin Wilson's great ideal of a league of nations, on the ground that such a
scheme was an invasion of American rights. But still, everything, masked by
ingrained hypocrisy and prudishness, seemed simple, beautiful, inevitable.
Now my generation is disillusionized, and, I think, to a certain extent, brutalized, by the cataclysm which their complacent folly engendered. The acceleration of life for us has been so great that into the last few years have been crowded the experiences and the
ideas of a normal lifetime. We have in our unregenerate youth learned the practicality and the cynicism that is safe only in unregenerate old age. We have been forced to become realists overnight, instead of idealists, as was our birthright. We have seen man at his lowest, woman at her lightest, in the terrible moral chaos of Europe. We
have been forced to question, and in many cases to discard, the religion of our fathers. We have seen hideous peculation, greed, anger, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, unmasked and rampant and unashamed. We have been forced to live in an atmosphere of
'to-morrow we die,' and so, naturally, we drank and were merry. We have seen the rottenness and shortcomings of all governments, even .the best and most stable. We have seen entire social systems overthrown, and our own called in question. In short, we have seen the inherent beastliness of the human race revealed in an infernal apocalypse.
It is the older generation who forced us to see all this ... We are faced with staggering problems and are forced to solve them, while the previous incumbents are permitted a graceful and untroubled death. ... A keen interest in political and social problems, and a determination to face the facts of life, ugly or beautiful, characterizes us, as it certainly did not characterize our fathers. We won't shut our eyes to the truths we have learned. We have faced so many unpleasant things already, - and faced them pretty well,-that it is natural that we should keep it up.
Now I think that this is the aspect of our generation that annoys the uncritical and deceives the unsuspecting oldsters who are now met in judgment upon us: our devastating and brutal frankness. And this is the quality in which we really differ from our predecessors. We are frank with each other, frank, or pretty nearly so, with our elders, frank in the way we feel toward life and this badly damaged world. It may be a disquieting and misleading ha.bit, but is it a bad one? We find some few things in
the ·world that we like, and a whole lot that we don't, and we are not afraid to
say so or to give our reasons. In earlier generations this was not the case. The young men yearned to be glittering generalities, the young women to act like shy, sweet, innocent fawns--toward one another. And now, when grown up, they have come to ·believe that they actually were figures of pristine excellence, knightly chivalry, adorable modesty,
and impeccable propriety. But I really doubt if they were so. ...

The oldsters stand dramatically with fingers and toes and noses pressed against the bursting dykes. Let them! They won't do any good. They can shackle us down, and still expect us to repair their blunders, if they wish. But we shall not trouble ourselves very much about them any more. Why should we? What have they done? They have made us
work as they never had .to work in all their padded lives - but we'll have our cakes and ale for a' that. 
For now we know our way about. We 're not babes in the wood, hunting for great, big, red strawberries, and confidently expecting the Robin Red-Breasts to cover us up with pretty leaves if we don't find them. We're men and women, long before our time,
in the flower of our full-blooded youth. We' have brought back into civil life some of the recklessness and ability that we were taught by war. We are also quite fatalistic in our outlook on the tepid perils of tame living. All may yet crash to the ground for aught that
we can do about it. Terrible mistakes will be made, but we shall at least make them intelligently and insist, if we are to receive the strictures of the future, on doing pretty much as we choose now. 
Insert a few references to some modern -isms--say, environmentalism, capitalism, militarism. racism, and sexism--and this essay from 1920 could be republished today. This doesn't make it wrong, of  course. The essay is a fair representation of one set of incomplete truths that each generation tells itself. At least some of the young, at least in a certain mood, are shocked, shocked, when they reach adulthood and discover that previous generations have let them down and the world still has problems. At least some of the middle-aged and old, at least in a certain mood, don't actually disagree with this insight that problems continue to exist, but they have a hard time viewing this discovery of the young as a profound or thoughtful insight. And so the generations go.