Generation X's rough childhood

September 6, 2009 | By Cheryl Wetzstein

Recent media hoopla over the 40-year anniversary of Woodstock took us back to Max Yasgur's farm and the antics of 500,000 happy-go-lucky young Americans.

My goal today is to revisit another memory lane.

The American family was hit hard in the post-Woodstock years, to the point where it could be described as "anti-child." My concern is that our culture is still battering the American family without realizing how deeply wounded it is.

My source is the 1997 book, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous With Destiny, written by Neil Howe and William Strauss, who died in 2007. Their forte is explaining patterns in history based on generational cycles and archetypes in leaders and populace.

Baby Boomers, for instance, (born 1943 to 1960) are a "prophet" generation, whereas the next generation (born 1961 to 1981, which Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss called "13rs" but is better known as Generation X) is a "nomadic" one.

The generational differences are stark.

In the early 1960s, "American women were still giving birth at a record pace," but a few years later, "baby-making abruptly fell out of favor," Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss wrote.

Birth-control pills and feminism became popular, as did "a new societywide hostility toward children," they wrote. A third of mothers told a major fertility study that one of their children was unwanted. Women wore buttons that said "Stop at One," "None is Fun," and "Jesus Was an Only Child."

Hollywood movies reflected the "new anti-child attitude." The 1960s "smart-kid" sitcoms and "creative-kid" Disney movies gave way to "a new genre featuring unwanted, unlikable or simply horrifying children." These included monster children (Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, It's Alive, The Omen), savage children (Lord of the Flies), hucksters (Paper Moon), prostitutes (Taxi Driver) and spoiled brats (Willie Wonka).

Children became personae non gratae — restaurants and theaters didn't want them; rental apartments banned them. Zero Population Growth materials likened them to "pollution," a burden on scarce resources.

Books and articles recounted the pain and suffering of childbearing and costliness of child-rearing. By the late 1970s, one in three fetuses was aborted.

Divorce exploded under new "no-fault" laws and hit Generation X "harder than any other child generation in U.S. history," Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss wrote. Adults believed divorce wouldn't be that bad for their kids. In fact, many started to believe it was good for children to learn early on that the world was cruel.

"It was an era in which everyone and everything had to be liberated, whether it was good for them or not," the authors said.

Other common experiences in Generation X's childhood were coming home to empty houses (latchkey kids) and being kicked out by parents (runaway, throwaway kids). They endured educational experiments ("person-centered" education and open classrooms) "and yet heard themselves denounced as so wild and stupid as to put '[A] Nation At Risk,'" Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss wrote, referring to the landmark 1983 report about America's terrible schools.

"Ask today's young adults [Generation X] how they were raised, and many will tell you that they raised themselves—that they made their own meals, washed their own clothes, decided for themselves whether to do homework or make money after school, and chose which parent to spend time with on the weekend (or side with in court).

"In their childhood memory, the individual always trumped the group," Mr. Howe and Mr. Strauss concluded.

Today, adults again are clamoring for unprecedented individual rights, with hardly a glance at the broader social consequences. To me, Generation X's miserable childhood is a reminder that when institutions of faith and family are rocked (and rolled), the fallout hits the little ones firs.


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