The new generations are the best news yet

The best news in the paper these days is in the Lifestyle section, where, among other revelations, we learn that “swing” is back. Of course, it’s not 1940 all over again, nor is the trend pervasive. College kids around Seattle and around the country are not proposing to outfit a museum called 50 Years On, let alone inhabit it. But they are rummaging through the culture’s garage sales in a search of the wonderful combination of innocence, fun and sophistication that they have seen in old movies and heard in old songs. It may be a sign of something big beyond the music scene.
Before the GI generation that “Shuffled Off to Buffalo” also “shuffles off this mortal coil” (if I can mix the lyrics of Harry Warren with the prose of Will Shakespeare), what sweet revenge on their ungrateful Boomer offspring it will be to witness the return of the Lindy, cocktail dresses and high heels! The old 78s of “The ‘A’ Train” and “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company ‘B'” don’t get sent to church bazaars now ; they are gifts for the grandchildren.

You see the change in the oddest places, and it’s not just among the twenty-somethings. At Seattle’s Franklin High School the improbable show-stopper in this year’s musical revue was a white-tie-and-tails, top-hat-and-cane production number, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Scores of teen-aged girls in evening dresses attempting a Ginger Rogers routine on what appeared as a Hollywood sound stage made a remarkable sight.

But even more astounding were the boys–kids whose school-day jeans normally sag below the Southern Hemisphere–imitating Fred Astaire. If they did not achieve Fred Astaire in form, they did in spirit, and the whole attempt was both hilarious and admirable. Watching parents were pleased, but the other students in the audience simply went wild. It was the same feeling that must have electrified a Benny Goodman dance marathon a half century ago.

Maybe it’s just the music scene that’s affected, and maybe only part of that scene. If so–if only “Grunge is dead,” as some Gen Xers say–that alone would be a significant shift. Kids apparently are tired of gyrating in place.

But, what if something more is afoot than old dance steps? What if the longing for organized rhythm and complex melody speaks to the ethics of life as well as to a style of music?

A 13 year old of my immediate acquaintance, when gently reprimanded for some small infraction, replied, “I’m sorry, Pop, but you have to remember that I’m just a kid. I make mistakes. I need guidance.”

Now that is not only a great line to mollify a parent, but it also is true. When a kid knows that about himself, even if it is a line, he is in an ethical position far more propitious than that occupied, say, by the generation that warned, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Yet, at a Rolling Stones concert recently, someone supposedly quipped that the Boomer generation that issued that warning now says, “Don’t trust anyone under 30.” Perhaps people don’t, and that’s why polls show such negativity about today’s youth. The research group Public Agenda reports that “large numbers of Americans across all demographic groups” harbor negative impressions of teen-agers. Some 66% have bad impressions of today’s teens, versus only 12% percent with good impressions.

But when Public Agenda studied 600 randomly selected youth 12-17, the kids’ own picture was much more upbeat, not only about themselves, but about their parents, work, the importance of voluntary service and religion. For example, some 66% said that “‘faith in God is very important in my life.'” In other words, America’s future adults are much better than their unfair billing.

A new, Seattle-based newsletter, Love Those Millenials (LTM), provides ample evidence of brightening prospects for the very latest American kids, the babies born since 1981 and whose teen years will surround the shift in millennia.

LTM editor Frank Gregorsky cites a study by MTV’s Judy McGrath, reported in Forbes, to show how today’s teens offer hope to this cynical world. McGrath has tracked the crowd of 14 to 25 year olds and sees the new generation as neo-traditionalists. “The ‘us versus them’ quotient is down,” she says. “Now parents are cool. Unlike (members of) the last minigroups, who felt they wouldn’t earn money and lead comfortable lives, this group says they will. They want good jobs and think saving money is cool.”

For this younger group–even younger than those now dancing to the Andrews Sisters–McGrath says “Contrived, hard-edged fashion is dead. Attitude is over.” Some sociologists predicted that this group would lead a new crime wave, but instead, as McGrath says, most of the kids are turning out “simple and sweet.”

Whole books are being written about why these developments. Maybe the Boomers, whose parents spoiled them, decided not to do it to their own children. Maybe, as some Gen X music reviewers speculate, young people generally are fed up with political correctness and instead are looking backward for future inspiration. Either way, the next adults could be the ones who embrace and recast the great traditions of our culture.

What could top such happiness?

Do I hear a waltz?

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.