It is sobering to realize that while my classmates regard Ronald Reagan as a name from the distant past, I was born when the president was Calvin Coolidge. It is sobering, but not stultifying because our pronounced differences in age and experience have shown me that the Gen Xers are probably the first generation to benefit fully from what many Americans still regard as one of the great domestic disasters of the departing century.
When I was born, and for decades afterwards, the rules of behavior for Americans were set by the triad of government, religion and family. The schools, the media, our political and religious leaders and our parents united in supporting these rules. We might vote for opposing parties or believe in different faiths, but white Americans, the large majority, were agreed on these behavioral boundaries that made clear what we were allowed and what we were not allowed to do.
The traditional family, two parents and children, was the rock upon which society was based. Divorce was, if not prohibited, much frowned upon and divorced women, though not their former husbands, were often pariahs with little income and few rights regarding their children. Women had three career choices; salesgirl, nurse or teacher. Abortion was, of course, illegal as was homosexual behavior.
Until the century was almost half over there was little provision, beyond private charity, for the less fortunate; the mentally ill, the retarded, victims of accidents, battered spouses and children, the abandoned and the forgotten. In much of the country there was little protection for those with the wrong skin color, unpopular political beliefs, or deviant behavior patterns.
In brief, the century began with most Americans locked by birth into social and economic classes whose rules were fixed. (There did exist one escape route, moving to the western frontier, but even that had almost vanished by 1900.)
How different is the world as experienced by my classmates. The traditional family is a weakened institution, perhaps a dying one. Most Americans claim to believe in God but fewer than ever attend the established churches. (Fundamentalism is gaining ground but largely among minorities and new immigrants.) Jews are declining in number and in intensity of religious practice.
And, the Kansas Board of Education to the contrary, government, which exerts its social influence largely through the schools, is resigning as a reinforcer of traditional beliefs and values and now distributes condoms and conducts human sexuality classes in high schools.
All of this is deplored by many, including some of my fellow students. They would like a return to a society which was more predictable, where one knew the rules of correct behavior and where the differences between right and wrong were clearly delineated. "Right" and "wrong" are the words they use in class.
I think that they use the wrong words. I would prefer the word "different".
To this I would add a second word, "confused". These students are nowhere as certain of themselves as we were more than five decades ago. Going to high school, college and the military during World War II, we had no doubt about who were the bad guys and who the good guys. Today Hitler has disappeared and so has his successor as our national enemy, the Evil Empire. Now we send our soldiers to fight tribesmen in Somalia, Serbs in Kosovo and Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf. Nasty characters all but none about whom you can get really worked up.
As our national goals appear to have lost in importance and direction, so too have our personal goals. Supporting and raising a family is still regarded as a fundamental responsibility in American society but the family itself has changed. As often as not there is only one parent present, the children may have different fathers and the scene at many weddings, with multiple sets of parents on both sides of the altar, is a mainstay of TV comedy.
It is in government that the differences are most apparent. Our current president embodies in his personal behavior everything we were taught to reject, lying and sexual misconduct heading the list. He has even been impeached by Congress for lying about his misconduct and yet he retains considerable popularity among the voters. Clearly they no longer regard this kind of behavior as politically unacceptable.
For all of their professed objections to the changes in American behavioral standards, how many of my classmates would willingly return to those of even 20 years ago? They are much freer than their parents were, freer to live the lives they choose, freer to make changes in their lives, freer to be different and freer to go public.
They are already facing new sets of problems brought on by these changes but at 72, I am happy that these are less my concern than that of my children and grandchildren. On the other hand, I would love to see how it all turns out.