The 1968 Exhibit: "The Generation Gap," LIFE, May 17, 1968

life-gen-gap-may68Generation gap-- a Sixties "meme"

Certain phrases migrate from being just a combination of words to something with a little more immortality.  Mundanely, we might call them "catchphrases." Today we would probably call these virally spreading cultural nuggets "memes."  That word probably had little currency in the 1960s, but one of 1968's most pervasive memes was "generation gap."  It was the upheavals of the 1960s that gave rise to this term, if not the actual phenomenon, which had been around for centuries.  Sociologist Kenneth Keniston, in his influential 1968 study Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth, found his informants to be “hostile . . . to patterns of power and authority.” No lesser lights than Bruno Bettelheim, Erik Erikson, and Margaret Mead all produced social-psychological studies focusing on generational divides and challenges in this era.

Understanding the gap

Margaret Mead, in the book Culture and Commitment (subtitled "A Study in the Generation Gap"), based on a series of lectures in 1969, turned her anthropologist's eye to the problem:  "Today, nowhere in the world are there elders who know what children know, not matter how remote and simple the societies in which the children live. In the past there were always some elders who knew more than any children in terms of their experience of having grown up with a cultural system.  Today there are none."  Classically, of course, young people define themselves in relation to—if not always in opposition to—the values of their parents’ generation. But the Sixties sharpened this process, compelling one to find a place on one side or the other of a yawning “generation gap.”

To be young again

A national obsession with youth and youthfulness and youthful rebellion was evident throughout the decade.  LIFE magazine, with this May 17 issue, was actually a little behind the curve in finding currency in this concept.  TIME, after all, had declared "Men and Women Under 25" to be their "Persons of the Year" way back in January 1966.  LIFE's hook was to document an actual gap, to publish the conflicting views of two men--Richard Lorber (age 20) and his uncle, Ernest Fladell (age 42), both New Yorkers, who decided to write a book together about their experiences when young Lorber moved in with his uncle in 1967.   That's Lorber's head on the cover, with his uncle pictured in his right eyeglass lens.  (Of course, it's not surprising that LIFE's choice for these stand-ins for "the gap" are both white males.)

Communicating across the gap--or not

The pair have some archetypal adventures together:  Richard turns Ernie on to pot; Ernie enjoys it, but Richard turns resentful when afterwards Ernie professes great insight into the drug's appeal:  "It is as if he had crashed a very private party I was having with myself."   Richie and Ernie hook up with Richie's friends in Greenwich Village (Ernie wants to meet a "few bona fide hippies"), and it gets a little weird with some girls they hang out with. (Ernie proclaims that "the so-called sexual revolution isn't what it's cracked up to be.") They visit a few head shops in the East Village (e.g., the "Psychedelicatessan").  They disagree--strongly--about the "Negro riots" which Richie sees as "the most hopeful sign I have seen in the past year;" he understands "exactly" how blacks have been "driven to violence."  Ernie is appalled:  "I don't think he knows what he's talking about."  Richie and Ernie (a veteran of World War II) disagree on military service.  After Ernie's draft board reclassifies him, he gets worried, and tells Ernie that he was "facing one of the most agonizing decisions of his life."  Ernie says: "I went to war weak with fear but strong in pride. Richard has only fear."