Before there were Millennials to blame for everything, there were Beatniks.
By Peggy O'Donnell
On a spring afternoon, a Republican political candidate told an audience in San Francisco about a recent rock concert at UC Berkeley.
“Three rock and roll bands played simultaneously. The smell of marijuana was thick throughout the hall. […] There were indications of other happenings that cannot be mentioned here,” he said, suggestively. The politician said he would make America great again, so to speak, and take a stand against the degeneracies of youth culture: casual sex and drug use, inexplicable tastes in entertainment and fashion, naive politics, laziness, and general lack of respect for their elders.
Anyone who reads anything on the internet knows that millennials and their morals, thoughts, and actions are threatening the future of humanity. Two general categories of millennial thinkpieces abound:
Everyone seems concerned that the kids today aren’t alright.
But that politician so concerned about the scandalizing “happenings” at Berkeley? That was Ronald Reagan. The speech was in the midst of his 1966 campaign for California’s governorship, and the youths weren’t millennials at all. Reagan railed against the “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates” who had turned California’s flagship university into a “rallying point of communists and a center of sexual misconduct.” Once elected, Governor Reagan violently repressed political rallies and the Free Speech Movement. In the 1960s, the patron saint of today’s GOP built his career on opposing and repressing young people’s differing ideas of morality, fun, love, and politics.
The kids, it would seem, have not been alright for a long time.
Older generations have probably worried about the youth ruining everything since the dawn of civilization. In a quote often attributed to Socrates, the great philosopher of ancient Greece lamented, “the children now love luxury; they have bad manners and contempt for authority.”
In 18th and 19th century Britain and France, generational angst was directed toward "dandies": young, working- or middle-class men who dressed ostentatiously and elegantly to appear aristocratic, an identity older, established sectors of society didn’t think they deserved. With their clothing choices — as with hoodies-as-workwear in Silicon Valley — dandies questioned both the appearance and reality of social hierarchy, and were ridiculed for having done so.
The beatniks that earned Reagan’s ire at Berkeley were a late 1950s urban and intellectual youth culture that opposed “middle class values” like consumerism and homophobia, and advocated for gender and racial equality. By the mid-1960s, beatnik culture had morphed into hippie culture, which brought with it even more obvious sartorial (tie-dye and bell bottoms), cultural (Woodstock and LSD), and political (pro-Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam) challenges to societal norms. (And lest you think millennials’ hookup culture invented casual sex, please see 1967 and the Summer of Love.)
Like millennials, beatniks and hippies were characterized by older generations as lazy, frivolous, morally lax, and — with their political and social demands — whiny. If you believe the critics, our self-centered millennial generation might be upset to know that even the criticisms of us are not new.
Gen X didn’t make it out of youth unscathed either. A 1990 Time Magazine cover story recounted their failings: “They have trouble making decisions. […] They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. […] They postpone marriage [and] possess only a hazy sense of their own identity but a monumental preoccupation with all the problems the preceding generation will leave for them to fix.” In 1990, Gen X was the worst generation in history. But replace the words “TV dial,” and the same description could be a critique of millennials, the new worst generation in history. Give it time and they, too, will pass the torch.
So: Perhaps the only truly historically unique thing about millennials is that they’re living out their youth on the internet. In the heydays of their youth, dandies, beatniks, hippies, and Gen Xers were equally seen as the harbingers of humanity’s doom. But in the rosy gaze of history, they have been accepted as coherent youth cultures, with largely coherent — if kind of weird — fashions, morals, tastes, and politics. They brought little doom, and millennials won’t either. Probably.