By: Thom Little, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog entitled “Why Do They Do That?” trying to explain why younger legislators, staffers and constituents do the things they do–like sharing so much on social media, ignoring institutional practices and protesting instead of voting. In that piece, based on presentations at SLLF’s recent leadership forum, I argued that they do what they do because of the environment in which they came of political maturity–a time where social media was prevalent and major economic, political and religious institutions were falling short.

That piece started me thinking. Why do I (or we if you want to talk generations) do the things I (we) do? What environmental factors made me the kind of person I am. I was born in 1964 (June 2, 1964 to be exact if you want to send presents!), so depending on how you define it, I am the last of the Baby Boomers or the first of the Gen X’ers. I came to an age of political awareness during the first half of the 1980s–an era dominated by the birth of cable television, MTV, septuagenarian President Ronald Reagan and a renewed optimism in America and political institutions. Much of the skepticism of institutions and government created by Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran Hostage Crisis faded away in the optimism of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning Again in America.”

So how do those experiences determine what I and others of my generation do and how we view the political landscape?

First, in light of the bipartisan political compromises worked out between the likes of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill or President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, we generally trust political institutions to work and produce public policy that is legitimate, even if we don’t agree with it. We generally value and tend to work through traditional processes and institutions because we came of age in an era where they worked. Shoot, I have spent all of my adult life studying and trying to improve the political institution of the state legislature because I believe that is central to the success of this experiment we call representative democracy. (Just call me Pollyanna!)

Second, I can’t speak as much for others on this one but I came of age in an era (and geographic region) where respect was naturally and automatically granted to those with experience–a nice way of saying old. That respect could be lost, but it was granted until that time. My father once told me, “If your grandfather tells you it’s going to rain nickels, you shut up and get a bucket because he is your grandfather.” So my generation tends to be more deferential to age and experience, and now that we are getting on the other side of that generation gap, we tend to expect it from those younger than we are.

Third, we did not grow up with all of this “new fangled technology” that gave us total control of information. Neither information nor communications were at our fingertips. We had to wait until the 3 television networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) decided to run a show before we could watch it and if we missed “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer” this Christmas, we were out of luck for a whole year. With no ESPN, I remember waiting anxiously for the afternoon paper to see how my beloved  Cincinnati Reds (The Big Red Machine) did if they had a West Coast game the night before! We did not expect immediate gratification then so we are less demanding of it now.

Fourth, while we could communicate much more rapidly than our ancestors (telephones are much quicker than letters), we could not be in constant communications with each other or the world. Our phones were tethered to walls and our pictures were stuck in a camera until we sent them off to be developed (or pushed a button to get Polaroid pictures that would eventually turn yellow). If we were walking down the street or sitting in a restaurant, we had to talk to the person sitting with us or be quiet. If we were going to be late meeting someone at the mall (we loved to hang out there), we could not text, fb, im or tweet–we just had to hope they would wait on us. So, we are used to making plans and developing alternative plans if those don’t work–it is hard for us to “fly by the seat of our pants.”

Finally, right or wrong (okay, wrong), we came of age where certain things were not easily accepted or talked about. We were just getting over the integration battles of the 1970s so racial tensions were part of the landscape. Sexual orientation was seldom if ever talked about publicly, and the concept of gender identity was not even a thing, at least in my world. I am not saying this was right, but it was reality and perhaps that might make it a little easier for the “young whippersnappers” to understand why some of these changing attitudes are difficult.

Now I am not writing this to say that we are right in our views or that other generations are wrong. Further, I am not suggesting that we cannot and have not changed. For example, my views on sexual orientation and gender identity are considerably different now than they were twenty years ago and many of my generation (and older) seem as likely to live on social media as their younger colleagues. I am writing this, as well as the piece on the younger generations, in the hope that we can and will better understand each other and perhaps find that we are not as different as we have been led to believe.