Caught in a Cycle

Cultural revolutions are more predictable than you might think

In 2020, Bob Dylan released “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute-long song about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Following the release, he was asked in an interview if the song was a “nostalgic eulogy for a lost time.”

 “To me it’s not nostalgic,” he replied. “I don’t think of ‘Murder Most Foul’ as a glorification of the past or some kind of send-off to a lost age. It speaks to me in the moment.” He went on to say, “We [people of a certain age] have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything.”

When I read that, I thought something along the lines of, “Wow, Bob Dylan has really changed.” It was hard to believe that this was the same man who had written “The Times They Are A-Changin’”:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don't criticize
What you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'

But on further reflection, I don’t think Bob Dylan’s has really changed.

He’d just gotten old.

When the Youth Grow Up

What do I mean? Take a related example. A friend of mine once told me that his sister was as different from him as she could be, because he liked working out (and other stereotypically masculine things) and she liked getting manicures (and other stereotypically feminine things).

I couldn’t help thinking that they were really not different but equivalent—they both conformed wholeheartedly to the ideals of gender that biology and culture had presented them with. If my friend had been born female, but nothing else about him was changed, then he probably would have been feminine, just like his sister. The people who seem least alike are often, in one sense, the most alike.

This applies to age. The arrogant teen and the crochety old man are similar. You start off as a young man stuck on the future (because you don’t have much past) and you look down on the old; you end up an old man stuck in the past (because you don’t have much future) and you look down on young.

If we were being ungenerous, we might say that the judgmental youth and the judgmental old man are a single, self-condemning individual, looking at his inverted reflection in the mirror and hating what he sees.

When the Youth Don’t Grow Up

So what happened to Bob Dylan is natural.

But lately, this natural progression has been getting derailed a lot.

There may be an even worse way to grow old.

Bob Dylan may have helped brew the Kool-Aid of his generation, but it doesn’t seem like he drank it. A lot of people in the 60s drank the Kool-Aid. And as a result, many of them just don’t seem to be able to move on from the idea that Youth is better—and wiser—than Old Age.

That’s one theory Rob Henderson mentions in an entertaining essay about his bafflement over why old people these days care so much about being cool. After leaving the military and going to Yale, Henderson was hit full in the face by culture shock. Unlike in the military, in Yale nobody ever got kicked out for disrespecting the authorities. On the contrary, the professors seemed positively desperate for the approval of the students.

Unfortunately, it’s not just elite universities: it’s the culture as a whole. Henderson writes:

Older adults crave validation from the youth, which is one reason they are mocked. Young people sense their desire to be seen as cool and deprive them of this by taunting them.

This desire for esteem may be why older adults won’t exert any authority in response to energetic young conflict entrepreneurs who yell at them or threaten them.

As Henderson points out, older adults didn’t always care what young people thought of them. They were secure in their authority. In fact, young people used to want to seem older. Henderson quotes Bill Maher (that great conservative philosopher):

Other cultures figured out that older people are generally wiser. The more days you live, the more things you know. When you’re young you have beauty and when you’re old you have wisdom. Only this dumb country wants to posit wisdom and beauty in youth.

It is dumb; but I think it’s also understandable. If you grew up being told “don’t trust anyone over thirty,” what are you going to do when you pass thirty? If you grew up singing along while Bob Dylan told your parents, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand,” how can you ever start criticizing the youth yourself?

A lot of people can’t, because it would mean admitting they were wrong and letting go of a cherished worldview. So they cling to the comfort that, even if they can’t technically be the Youth, they can still at least side with the Youth. Thus, you see our elderly politicians going right along with Tumblr ideologies that would have seemed insane to them in the 60s, simply because they know who the Youth are, and they desperately need to side with the Youth.

Generational Cycles

I’ve been reading the latest book by Neil Howe, an interesting author with something of a cult following for popularizing the theory that generational cycles explain socio-political developments. It’s not a new idea; it goes all the way back to Ibn Khaldun, the “father of sociology.” But Howe tries to refine older theories of generational cycles, check them against modern history, and apply his findings to the present. Most importantly (for the sellability of his books), he then attempts to use the patterns to predict future developments. Whether the future is as predictable as he thinks it is remains to be seen, but he does come up with some interesting insights about the present.

Howe quotes Lewis Mumford: “The commonest axiom of history is that every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers.”

This reactionary pendulum, Howe believes, explains the cooperative synergy between the Millennials, who are society’s Passionate Youth at the moment, and the Boomers, who are the Elders presiding over it: the Youth of today are reacting against their Gen-X parents, who in turn had reacted against the Boomers. That puts the Millennials on the same “side” as the Boomers. Combined, they have a lot of power—the Millennials’ kids are too young to do much yet, and the Boomers’ parents are too old. So the more conservative Gen-Xers are outnumbered two to one. That’s why we’re going through a cultural revolution today that seems to mirror and build upon the one in the 60s.

Of course, that logic implies that in a few years, when Gen-Xers are the Elders and the Millennials’ children are reacting against the Millennials, there will be a counter-reactionary movement, and the pendulum will swing back to the right.

But, of course, the Gen-Xers won’t be able to fully restore things to the halcyon 80s, and after a while they will age out of Eldership, and their grandchildren will age out of being the passionate Youth. Then Millennials will be the Elders, with their grandchildren reacting against their more conservative parents (the Millennials’ children)—and there will be yet another cultural revolution, which will echo this one, and which will go even farther.

And on, and on, and on.

(Importantly, this is only true in a non-traditional society. In traditional societies, the natural generational cycles were muted by strict adherence to tradition. So this global spiral out of control—my take, Howe is more positive about it—started with Modernity.)

This hypothesis makes sense to me. It does seem to have some historical precedent, if you look at the 1880s and so on—but of course, the future is not as predictable as the past (for some reason).

Can We Break Out?

The question that naturally follows from all this is, “Am I okay with my role in this story?”

I, for one, am not. I don’t want to be merely the product of my age and generation. I don’t want to spend my youth telling everyone that old people need to get out of the way, and then spend my old age saying that young people don’t know anything. Nor do I want to end up a wannabe youth in an aging body, unable to grow wise as I grow old. Is there any way to be objective?

I suspect the answer is humility. Humility could make a young man pause and ask whether older people might possibly know something he doesn’t. It could make an old man ask the same about the younger generations. That sort of person wouldn’t be a slave to the cycles of age and era.  

Because, when you think about it, these cycles only exist because of ego. Because of ego, a person says, “I know best because I’m young,” then later switches to “I know best because I’m old.”  Another person, because of ego, starts out saying, “I know best because I’m young,” and then, refusing to ever admit fault, switches to “I know best because I’m on the side of the young.” (You tell me which is more egotistical; I have no idea.)

I guess that explains why these cycles repeat ad nauseam. They’re hard to break out of because, who likes being humble? If humility is the key to freedom, most of us prefer to stay in prison.

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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