By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Generation Gaps/Cycles

In 1990-92 I was writing a monthly column called Articulations in THE HINDU, India's most prestigious English newspaper, often analyzing very complex issues.   Commenting on 'cosmic cycles' the other day, I couldn't help recalling an essay I had written in that column in 1991, visualizing the concept of a 'generation cycle'.  So here it is! 

Sunday Magazine
7 July 1991

The Generation Cycle

    Everyone knows about the generation gap.  Parents all over the world are often unable to understand the strange ways of their children passing through the troublesome teen age.  But the question is much larger than a mere lack of rapport between parents and children.  Elders everywhere generally find it difficult to reconcile themselves to the provocative ideas of much younger men and women, and young people everywhere find it equally difficult to appreciate the old-fashioned ideas of their elders.
     This conflict is repeated as time marches on relentlessly.  In many cases yesterday's rebel happens to be today's conservative, and may well turn out to be tomorrow's fossil,  There are bound to be some exceptions;  but by and large even an aggressively unorthodox person tends to be eventually transformed into a conventional character in the course of a long life.

Tempo of change

     There are several factors which contribute to this trend.  Obviously the most important one among them is the tempo of the constant changes which occur in people's working methods and lifestyles  --  which in the modern world depends on the pace at which technological progress takes place during any given span of time.  That's no doubt why the generation gap is always wider in industrial and urban environments than in agricultural and rural societies, and is more conspicuous in advanced countries than in developing ones.

     The progressive changes which occur in the perception and outlook of successive younger generations are not only caused by advanced technology and new work patterns and lifestyles, but they have a reciprocal effect on those very things.  Changes in attitudes go on transforming the environment itself  --  modernizing agricultural practices, making industrial processes more and more sophisticated, seeking less seclusion and more interaction within the country and internationally.  Thus the distinction between cause and effect tends to get blurred with the passage of time. 

     Quite naturally, the generation gap is not a constant factor even within the same society.  Sometimes it expands, sometimes it shrinks.  There's a direct (and often reciprocal) relationship between the speed of technological progress, the tempo of changes in working modes and lifestyles, and the width of the generation gap.

      All these facts are well known, of course.  Still it's useful to articulate these thoughts here in a logical order, as a frame of reference in which we can examine a more intricate and obscure idea which has far-reaching implications.

     What may not be quite  obvious to the casual observer is the truth that such expansion and contraction of the generation gap tend to occur in alternating waves  --  preceding as well as succeeding each other, just as booms and depressions materialize as a trade cycle in a free-market economy.    This doesn't happen frequently or in a regular and systematic manner, which explains why the idea is not well recognized.   But a little careful reflection should convince the observer that the phenomenon is inherent in the very scheme of things which governs human existence.  One might indeed call it 'the generation cycle'.

     It would require an elaborate exercise to identify and interpret all the wide-ranging manifestations of the generation cycle in the domestic, social, economic, political and cultural lives of the people all over the world.  We can broadly scrutinize its nature with reference to some specific topic which is of special interest to us.  One might conveniently choose Carnatic music for this purpose. . . . .

    [Here followed a critical survey of progressive changes in the whole environment of South Indian classical music during the 20th century, which I shall quote in some other relevant context]


Postscript, 2012: 
Parallel gaps and cycles

Whenever I dig into my old files and fish out something I had written long ago for reference in the context of something I am writing now, I usually find that I wouldn't like to alter the sequence of ideas as I had expressed them, because I would normally have tied up the text with very tight logic and faultless insights.   
On rare occasions , however, I do come across an exceptional case where there was some flaw in logic or perception, causing an error of omission or commission.  Of course, if and when the mistake is spotted, it does become crystal-clear, and cries out for correction!  And here's precisely such a case.  
Taking a fresh look now at the above essay I had written 21 years ago, I wish to add an important idea, which just hadn't occurred to me at that time or even later. The gap between two successive generations (or even two distant generations) is never identical in different areas of life.  For example, there may be a wide gulf between a given set of parents and children in terms of professional life or their response to technological innovations, but simultaneously the gap between the same generations may be  much narrower in cultural or religious contexts. 
 The generation gap tends to be particularly narrow when it concerns food habits,  because most of us have a way of inheriting the gastronomic tastes of our parents and grandparents which we assimilated just like our mother-tongues when we were children, and they have a way of becoming lifelong addictions.  So when Grandpa, Grandma, Poppe, Momme and the kids sit down together  round the dining table (whether at home or in a restaurant) and cheerfully share a fine meal they all like, there's no great gulf which separates their generations!
Thus, what really exists between any given generations is not just a generation gap, but a whole set of parallel generation gaps.  And what's true of generation gaps must be equally true of generation cycles, of course.
One of these days I shall get back to this extremely elusive concept and explore its intricacies  in a proper essay.  Meanwhile, this is just an aide-memoire!

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