Why We Must All Help Bridge The ‘Generation Gap’

RP Subba.

‘Children now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents……’

And so it goes on. Another attack on the ‘youth of today’ for shunning the values of their parents, values which had served the elderly well and framed their behavior. But these words are not actually a 21st century moan, they are almost 2,500 years old. They are part of a scathing observation of the younger generation by Greek philosopher Socrates. It seems that what is called ‘the generation gap’  has always existed.

But, of course, we know this is not really the case. The concept of the ‘generation gap’ was quite unknown to Bhutanese culture not so long ago. Now our intellectuals mull over the topic at length as our young people demand greater understanding and recognition of their differing roles in a changed society.

The term ‘generation gap’ was first used in the 1960s when youth culture in the US among the so-called ‘baby boomers’ stopped heeding to their parent’s beliefs and wanted to shake away anything they followed. Youths have often railed at the values of the older generation but this was much more far-reaching.   

Taking the ‘generation gap’ to represent a biological phenomenon, a mental disposition or a cultural divide, confuses things and it clouds our understanding. The practice has been to make cultural comparisons in the name of the ‘generation gap’ instead of viewing it through comparisons of age. Age is biological, and behaviors and attitudes are cultural. To compare age to attitudes is like comparing apples to oranges. 

A biological ‘generation gap’ would compare age, hormones, body hair, muscle mass, wrinkles on the face etc between people of different generations. When we say ‘you are young or you are old’ it is based on such comparisons in the order of natural age. And, this is perfectly fine because generations are not required to meet together; since the chronology of biological procreation naturally sequences them apart into different age levels. 

Despite such differences in biological age, human history has long been a journey of generational continuity undisturbed by time and circumstances. That is to say, that generations have never stopped existing since antiquity nor is there anything called a ‘generation zero’. 

The young generation was always there to lead the recovery and they always came out stronger than before. Therefore, with age strictly as the criterion, it would be unwise to say that such a thing as a ‘generation gap’ exists. That is my argument. 

However, we shall use the widely accepted anthropological explanation of the ‘generation gap’ in our analysis, which is that a ‘generation gap’ is the difference of broader values and belief systems, perception, ideas, actions, behavior and opinions, social attitudes, social norms, morality and patterns of culture; closely held by one generation of people from those held by others especially between generations. This is strictly a culturalist view. 

My argument is that such cultural differences are self imposed and dictated more by exposure to modernism, development and technology than by age or biology. For example, among the lesser known societies such as Australian aborigines, who lived under the same conditions for generations, and in agrarian feudal societies where the occupational nature of the people remained unchanged for centuries, there was little in the way of culture to divide the generations. That all changed with the advent of new technologies. Therefore, in a nutshell, the ‘generation gap’ actually seems to be a generational cultural difference caused by the technology gap and nothing more. 

That said, each generation leaves behind its own trending culture, cognitive behaviors and vernacular lingo which impact society at large. Younger generations usually step up and carve out their own cultural niche. The way these generations interact and invest in their environments precipitate a lot of cultural contrasts in their experiences and outlook towards life. 

Across the cultural landscape, older generations tend to hold conservative views about the pressing issues of society, such as morality, religion, marriage and abortion etc. Short skirts and long nails on girls and young men’s ponytails irk their nerves; not to mention of night clubs, gay rights, same-sex marriages and drugs etc. 

Flanked by technology and table opportunities, the young generation are generally not interested in the moral codes of the traditional generation, their values and priorities. They tend to live in nuclear families and are generally more open to liberal views on critical subjects such as marijuana legalization, drugs and LGBTQ issues etc. They are then likely to gradually grow conservative as they age but this change is understood, as Churchill said, ‘if you’re not a liberal at 20 you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at 40, you have no brain’. 

According to a Times article the ‘tastes of millennials have shifted the culture, and their enormous appetite for social media has transformed human interaction’. That seems true because under the new generation, the organic community of their parents and grandparents has metamorphosised into an ‘online’ community. 

The ‘generation gap’ in Bhutanese society was unknown until after their resettlement and the creation of the Bhutanese Diaspora. In the good old days, the southern Bhutanese people lived in extended families of two or three generations, consisting of grandparents, their children, and their children in the same household. Each generation tilled the land, looked after their cattles, spoke in their own mother tongue and participated in community rituals. Elders provided wisdom and their role as head of households was never disputed. 

There was respect, loyalty, unity and an understandable social order in the family. What was learned determined what they earned, as such people were unaware that such a thing as a ‘generation gap’ even existed. The situation today has sharply transformed under resettlement with the ‘generation gap’ suddenly plucking our minds, from nowhere to everywhere. 

In reality, the elder of the Bhutanese refugee generation has not faltered. Given the reality of struggle and the circumstances of time and the choice of whether to focus on the ‘movement’ or to focus on the future of our younger generations, we chose our younger generation, hoping that if we did not succeed in our ‘movement’, the young would one day carry the same torch of freedom and question our perpetrators. We did the best we could.

The opening up of schools initially in Maidhar and subsequently in all seven refugee camps was the best of anything that could have happened in exile. We provided an education in the English language no less comprehensive than in any English boarding schools in Nepal. The initial effort was single handedly led by the Student’s Union of Bhutan until organized support arrived much later. 

Our educated youths volunteered not only to teach but to transport borrowed raw materials and weave straw roofs so we could put up a crude structure which we called the first refugee school in Maidhar. The seed for the making of our young PhDs, doctors, engineers, lawyers, other intellectuals and literates today was laid long ago in the sands of Kankai Mai. That is not a small achievement. 

This would not have been possible without a culture of help, which allowed us to escape the perils of the so-called ‘generation gap’. Even though I was not a direct beneficiary of this school system, I rise here, along with others, to salute and credit all those unforgettable souls – the unsung heroes of our camp schools.   

That said, the ‘generation gap’ does seem to have penetrated our diasporic community at the micro-level. Language and household culture seem to be in the doldrums. Inside some households the grandparents speak in their mother tongue. The grandchildren, especially in the American context; either due to birth or upbringing, speak English. Much of the time, it is observed that the ‘middle generation’ of the family have to act as language brokers between their parents, and their children. 

Alongside this, the extensive use of technology among the younger generation divides the generations. The older generation live in the analogue world while the younger generation have embraced the digital world. One female in Charlottesville, Virginia told me that her kids do not ‘interact with their grandparents anymore; they have become ignorant of their culture and language’. The natural bond that used to exist between generations seems to be quickly disappearing. This is a serious indication of a shifting culture. 

This is a new space and an opportunity where our new generation are best placed to lead the intervention by volunteering to help the senior generation out of the technology darkness. My son helps me with computers just as I used to help my parents read hand written letters when I was young. Youth and technology seem to make a happy partnership. It would be helpful indeed if they used this advantage to mitigate the ‘generation gap’ within our households. 

Talking about ‘youth participation’ in general, especially from the point of social leadership, is just too vague. We need to identify who we are talking to. 

Basically, in our society, youths may be grouped into three broad categories – the ‘shining’ youths, the ‘sailing’ youths and the ‘selling’ youths. The shining youths are talented and outstanding. They shine without guidance. After all, the senior leaders of the generations before them, our first responders and our fire-fighters during a time of great crisis, were also self made individuals. Then there are the exact opposites, those youths who in spite of guidance or help will never improve. It is useless to try anything with them. This is our ‘selling’ youths; our spoilt generation. They have sold themselves to all the bad things out there. 

Lastly, there is the overwhelming majority in between these two polarities, the ‘sailing’ youths or the dormant lot. These are old buds who failed to blossom. They are just sailing cluelessly but they have the potential to rise if touched upon by guiding hands and minds. They are the ones who need help. We don’t know who they are. Certainly they should be identified and they must also look outwards; so that the connection can be made and a new discourse begun.  

It is easy to blame others or to feel betrayed. But a ‘generation gap’ does not apply only to one particular generation or to one particular time. It works in both directions, runs in cycles and it cannot be addressed one way from above. The younger generations too have to push themselves and reach out to learn or to bridge that gap. It is an exercise in mutual reciprocity. Or, they can independently work on their own inner strengths and become the movers and shakers of this community. 

The older generation played their part, notably back in the days when even to venture out could take a risk of life, but they have always tried to give their one hundred percent, never less. Life has now changed for the better. Let us also recognize the fact that there will always be a new ‘younger generation’ than the ‘young generation’ who will ask difficult questions in the future. After all, who knew that the younger generation of Greeks which Socrates so derided would be illuminated by the likes of Aristotle and Plato.

So just wait. The 21st century is only 20 years old. You, the ‘young generations’ have a long way to go.

One of the columnists for BNS, the author contributed this long-read piece prior to his actual column which is due on November 1, 2020. Views expressed here are those of the author and not that of BNS.  

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Mr. Subba was born in Chargharey block, under Samchi district. He attended Yanchenphug Central School and graduated from Sherubtse College, Kanglung Bhutan. A founder member of the Students’ union of Bhutan, Mr. Subba was involved in the movement for human rights and democracy during its early stage. Mr. Subba has a Master’s Degree in Development Anthropology from Tribhuvan University, Nepal.

Mr. Subba left Bhutan on November 1989 – lived in India and Nepal during exile. He worked for different social organizations and political parties in various capacities. Mr. Subba also led a peaceful demonstration to Bhutan of 101 activists from the camps in Nepal in 1999 and was arrested and detained for 24 hours at Phuntsholing.

A long time writer, he often writes articles for news columns. He has written over 40 articles so far – published in the mainstream media in Nepal and through BNS. Mr. Subba currently lives in Charlottesville, VA with his family.