The dividing line

Posted: Dec 01, 2005 12:05 AM

I'm often struck by the generation gap in the many public service opinions I review. The age of 30 seems to be a rough but real dividing line. The worldview of those younger than 30 looks generally different from those who are older.

 Generation gaps are nothing new, but the current one may have new significance. Our society is apparently in the initial throes of transferring power from Baby Boomers and those slightly younger to a new breed of Americans. This younger set is evolving as communications and other technology does.

 The result may be an existing or emerging divide between older and younger Americans that is even greater than it was during the infamous culture wars of the 1960s.

 As one example, twenty-somethings today have never known a world without cable and satellite television. To them, black-and-white TV seems as antiquarian as an outhouse.

 And the notion that news, sports scores, entertainment gossip and the like might not be instantly and constantly available on computers is inconceivable to them.

 This emerging generation has a hazy understanding of World War II, a vague realization that there was another world war that preceded it, and, in most cases, no awareness at all that Americans once fought in Korea.

 Those under 25 look upon the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the battle against global communism as musty stories in history books and not as comparatively recent events that have made the world they now live in.

 Their sense of presidential history extends to Bill Clinton. And as columnist Thomas Sowell pointed out in his column this week, most young people think the good works of Jimmy Carter since he left the White House mean that he was a popular and accomplished president. (He wasn't.)

 Conveniences like ATM machines and cheap airfares to virtually anywhere are considered as much a birthright as oxygen and drinking water. And the idea that students once relied on slide rules to solve complex mathematical operations seems to them as quaint as writing on parchment paper.

 Few in this age bracket would look upon the concept of a military service draft as anything but an exercise of intolerable government tyranny. To them, Vietnam appears to be as much America's comeuppance for sins committed as it was a misapplied but noble attempt to save the world from communist expansion.

 Other changes are less significant but still telling. Younger Americans have never watched live television drama or variety shows. They've never seen hard liquor advertised during television commercial breaks, or watched newscasters or talk-show hosts smoking cigarettes on the air.

 None of this necessarily means that this new breed of American is either more or less promising than those who lived with three television channels and atom bomb drills. Time marches on, and people adapt to the world and the world to new people.

 But there does seem to be one emerging characteristic of this new age demographic, and, not surprisingly, it appears to be a function of the speed at which technological and social changes have occurred.

 As a whole, I think younger Americans are less passionate and focused on issues related to government, policy and other "hard news."

 Studies show that younger people are shying away from newspapers. They are instead getting word of national and world news as it flashes by on the margins of their Internet providers' home page, or when by chance, they channel surf past a cable or broadcast television news show.

 I don't suppose that in itself is reason to castigate the younger set. After all, their president has said several times that even he doesn't read newspapers. (I don't believe that's true, and I sure hope I'm right.)

 What does all this mean? For one, it likely means that the education and edification of our citizenry will fall more and more into the hands of government schools -- or private ones, for those whose parents can afford them. Schools will have to instill in the generation now under 18 some sense of perspective on history, the glittery present and our collective future.

 Concepts of patience and sacrifice -- not to mention a basic understanding and appreciation of our form of government -- will increasingly hinge on what the next crop of students are taught or not taught in primary, secondary and post-secondary schools.

 Sadly, I hear far too many reports of school systems choosing to skip whole portions of American history. Too many spend more time and money building new sports facilities than on building a basic background of knowledge and cognitive skills for their students.

 The polls I constantly review are just a modest peep through the keyhole of the future. But this narrow view shows an uneasy disconnect between those of us entering middle age and beyond, and those just now entering adulthood. The perception gap may prove to be wider than anyone can now foresee.