Who are we, compared to our Ancestors?

I find this a strange topic to do a post about on a history blog, but it is something that really stood out to me when I was trying to research the history of Masculinity (a huge topic with lots of information) and the history of generational demographic cohorts (this took me awhile too). In the end I settled for a post about why our generation would not be understood by our Victorian/ Edwardian great-great-grandparents. I started realising when I was researching the other topics that have such a vast historiography I might as well have done a dissertation on them, that as every generational demographic cohort, such as Generation Y (that’s us), comes to be, we become more and more un-recognisable to our own ancestors, or even our own parent’s generation. I started thinking, why is this? Most of us would suggest technology, culture, political correctness, but I think it’s something much deeper than that, I think it’s our natural human ability to better ourselves through learning, ingenuity and creativeness. It is also our generation’s ‘throw-away of the old’ culture, both figuratively and literally. There are plenty of examples in history where this is true, for example the big one that springs to mind is ‘The Enlightenment’, where we started realising that maybe the Bible doesn’t hold all the answers to life. Every generation shows vast amounts of change. Our Restoration ancestors would be un-recognisable to their Medieval ancestors as is the way with change, however it has mostly been paced in a way that the older generations can accept…until the Twenty-First Century where change decided to go at lightening speed.

Firstly, let’s start with the obvious one of technology. Most of our parents can barely understand how to reset an Iphone, use a HDMI cable or work a simple tablet; if our Victorian ancestors saw our technology they would certainly have been shocked by such advanced technological science. But would our ancestors view us in a bad light concerning our technology? It was during the Victorian period that science as we know it, stopped relying on the Bible as the only source of information and started using experimentation and study to define the world. The very machine on which I am writing this post is a vast library of information at my literal fingertips and I do not even need to leave the house, surely this shows how vastly different our lives are compared to the people our grandparents would have known.

However, in both the modern period and the Victorian era, sometimes relying on other humans for facts can lead us far away from factual truth, from the Victorian belief in Spontaneous Combustion to most students swearing that they have never used a Wikipedia article.

Furthermore, if we look at the wider scope of human technology and bring in our advanced nuclear warfare, a far cry from the Crimean (1854-6) and Boer (1880-81 and 1899-1902) wars, we can perhaps understand how this technology would probably be the most terrifying of all. Then again, if it scares the generations who created it, used it and live with it as a constant threat, of course it would scare our ancestors who fought wars with hand-held weapons, not buttons.

I also think another feat of human technology that would terrify our ancestors is social media. The very thing the Generation Y live and breathe for. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Tinder, Pinterest; and that’s to name a few, have more control over our lives than the Government if we are honest with ourselves. The worst our ancestors had to put up with was a neighbour seeing them wear the wrong bonnet on Sunday. Now all it takes is one picture of a night out you would rather forget, and your name is blighted on job application forms. The word of mouth has never been deemed more useless than by the computerised evidence of a picture. Social media scares the generation that uses it the most, so again, of course it would scare a demographic cohort that just invented the telegram.

Our general living standards would also be considered strange and abnormal, but also something I believe our ancestors would be in awe of. We live in an age where we are the most prosperous humans to ever live, however it is our very way of living that would have surprised our ancestors. Firstly, the fact that we have an NHS. A Health service that provides (majority) free healthcare to all in society; from the poorest to the wealthiest. Having only been introduced in 1947, after World War Two, this incredible feat of human social care shows how our attitudes to poverty and charity have changed. Victorian Britain was so rife with tuberculosis and typhoid that even Prince Albert died from the latter. Thus, to see a foundation of care that is paid for by the tax payer to keep the population of Britain healthy would be something our ancestors would scarcely understand or believe. However, some would argue that our opinions towards those most in need have not changed at all. A report in the Guardian suggests that the infrastructure of welfare support is under attack. The public believe social security is deemed too costly and the mutual support and solidarity that the welfare system was based upon is being replaced by selfish individualism. The Victorians coined a term, the ‘unworthy poor’, making there be a fine line for people who need assistance and those who are deemed lazy. Modern social workers have stated that they have grown accustomed to social proposal policies that state people experience poverty because of their own failures. A revisit of the Beveridge report published in 2014 suggests that modern poverty is not for a lack of jobs and therefore not a lack of effort, but from a serious lack in pay. Inequality and people’s perception of poverty is still a problem like it was in centuries past, however, it has evolved with every century to become something more recognisable to the modern generation.

Inequality is estimated to cost more than 39 billion pounds a year. In our consumerist world, we all want more from life than just living happy and healthy, but in our generation, inequality is not just between poor and rich anymore, its between male and female, gay and straight.  Our ancestors did not give women the vote, did not approve of homosexuality and firmly believed in class systems as a way of definition, and although we have more equality than that of our ancestors, we still fear that things could retreat backwards rather than forwards, especially in today’s world. This paragraph was hard to write as I did not want to offend anyone with my opinion, but if we just look at our world today and the world one hundred years ago, many things have changed for the better of course, but many things still have got a long way to go unfortunately.

I hope my final section will lighten the doom and gloom of the previous paragraph, I wanted to do a little section that moves closer to our generation. The Victorians are great and all, but I wanted to visit the fun and excitement of the Baby Boom generation and Generation X (1960s-1970s). The 20th and 21st century teenagers could not be more worlds apart from each other. From how much things cost to how they entertained themselves, our worlds are so different, however, the very things they considered new and exciting, we now consider retro and vintage, and I think this is the ultimate compliment we can pay to them. Polaroid cameras are now more synonymous with Instagram gurus, but back in the 1970’s they were a real way to capture a ‘selfie’. They were more about creating memories than showing them off to followers.  If anything, this generation was less lazy than us. They had to get up to change a TV channel, did not have mobile phones and had to visit their friends instead of skyping them. Many historians believe that it was after World War 2 that the teenager was born, however it was the 60s and 70s where they redefined what it meant to be a teenager. Gen X’ers laid the political, intellectual, social, creative and personal ground upon which the Millennial today walks, talks and texts. They started the trends, they experimented the fads and they fought for change. They were also the Sexual Revolution Generation, so you can thank your parents for people being more open-minded to sex (try not to gag).

Yet, I cannot completely agree that these generations were perfect because no generation is. In a graph done by the Washington Post, it is suggested that Generation Y are the least racist generation compared to their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, and this makes perfect sense; as times change, we change. What was also interesting was that our place on the graph was only slightly less than our parents. I found this quite surprising to read as I always assumed our generation were the most accepting generation of all. It brings forth a debate about how racist or prejudiced are we as a generation, if on a graph we are only one notch away from the same opinions as our parent’s generations. This harks back to the inequality paragraph, that although we may like to think we are not our parents and grandparent’s generation, our generation is not the best, there will be others in our future, our children and grandchildren, who will be accepting of all and inequality will seem like spontaneous combustion; ridiculous and stupid.

Some would argue we are not moving quickly enough, but we must remember that we are not the only generation living in this world. We also must hand it to our ancestors, without them we never would have had it so good or been the best generation so far. They went through harsh living conditions, wars, sexual revolutions and now,  Millennials have pushed changed even further, although we long for the retro cameras of the 70s, the mini skirts of the 60s or even the Victorian blouses that are on the runway, we as a generation are really living the dream our ancestors could only wish for, yet we must do more to protect what we have before we lose it and protect it for future generations to enjoy and improve upon.


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