Talkin' About My De-Generation

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Those who lived through the Great Depression absorbed an enduring metaphysical chill from it. Even in later, better times, the cold air of those years would gust through them like a warning.

The Depression chill eventually faded from the land. It left little mark on those raised in the prosperity of the Eisenhower years. It all but died in the raucous immediacies of the '60s. But the chill comes back from time to time, as now, in the ominous buck and plunge of the markets, amid the sound of axes at work in the orchards of the NASDAQ.

It's a dread, of course. But something else. There is such a thing as nostalgia for history. A certain wistfulness for large, shared experience comes over the young.

Ask college sophomores to name their most vivid public memory, and they invariably mention the explosion of the Challenger. Even that, they say ruefully, was something they saw on television, and therefore not quite real. They feel a certain bitterness and confusion about that unreality, about the disconnections of prosperity — the eventlessness.

Future college classes might name the O. J. Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana or of John Kennedy Jr., or perhaps Oklahoma City or Columbine, all events that were real enough but also unreal, or surreal, because experienced as a cloud of hyped-up, noisy electrons coalescing on a screen at home, interrupted by commercials. Maybe the class of 2015 will say that their most important public memory — their defining moment of civic awareness — was Bill Clinton wagging that long, bony finger and saying, "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this one more time... I did not have sex with....."

Not the Depression, not Pearl Harbor, not the death of Roosevelt. Not Dallas, or Selma, or Martin Luther King in Memphis, or the Tet offensive or Bobby Kennedy's death. Not Watergate. Nothing to merit a full, sonorous documentary on the History Channel.

So it is with mixed feelings (thrilled fear, perhaps) that these students watch the market, and see a shadow come upon the land. Could this be chill history at last — large unpleasant history — arriving amid lives that began around the time of Ronald Reagan's first inauguration and proceeded through his "Morning in America," to Bush the Elder and his now-you-see-it-now-you-don't Gulf War? Fully half a college sophomore's life has been spent in a time of uninterrupted economic expansion; before that, the so-called Decade of Greed dangled over his childhood like a bright mobile over a crib.

The undergraduates of the millennium (now, post-millennium) era do not give much historical significance to the miracles and astonishments among which they have been raised, the scientific and technological transformations. They take these things for granted. But the computerization of the world, the globalized economy, the Internet, the mapping of the human genome, following on the end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, and the waning of the threat of nuclear world war — these things stand in such contrast to the previous lives of older Americans as to represent a metamorphosis, a passage to a new planet, also called Earth but unknowably different from what the elders knew when young.

Students I have talked to about these things do not much remember the (at the time) breathtaking little Crash of 1987. But now they feel the earth shaking beneath their feet a bit. They entertain premonitions that the earth will open, and in some ghastly, bracing time reversal, will suck the gaudy Clinton era backward into a grainy trauma of black and white. Unthinkable reversions become possible — mass unemployment, who knows? We have already seen California's power grids shuddering. Will grass sprout through the silicon chips, and all that brilliant information revert to sand, and Gates to Ozymandias? Maybe not, but there's a chill in the air.