Generational parallels between beats and millennials
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this piece featured a quote that was misattributed to Tony Trigilio. The quote has been removed.
While America was recovering from WWII, a few individuals in the 1950s rebelled against the difficult times by creating new music, literature and art, offering a new sense of style and freedom. These rebels were nicknamed “beatniks,” a term derived from “Sputnik,” the Russian satellite. The term was coined by Herb Caen six months after the launch of the satellite. “Beat” was a term formed by Jack Kerouac, one of the fathers of the beat movement, to reference unusual, yet spiritual folk. However, “beatnik” became a common phrase to describe these individuals, a connotation of being beaten down by society.
The beat movement was born in the mid-1950s, capturing the talent and imagination of creators, such as Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The movement formed a place in society for individuals who chose to not conform to the societal roles of the 1950s. Most beats are described as a group of people who chose to practice an unconventional lifestyle, taking part in activities such as writing poetry, studying Buddhism and using illicit drugs.
In her memoir Minor Characters, author Joyce Johnson describes the stereotypical beatnik as one who, “sold books, sold black turtleneck sweaters and bongos, berets and dark glasses, sold a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun.”
“I would say their rebellion was a reaction against the crushing conformity of post-war America,” Paul Hansom, an assistant professor of English at Ithaca College who specializes in American literature, said. “It seemed mainstream America was interested in work and consumption, in putting on the tie and heading to the office. For the beats, that really signaled death of the self and spirit, and was a profound betrayal of life itself.”
Participants in the beat movement went against the grain of cultural uniformity. They wore atypical outfits and studied topics such as religion, freedom, democracy and intuition. The philosophy of these people emphasized the importance of self-worth above materialistic needs. They worked their way into the media by the 1960s.
“By the mid-’60s, the beats went mainstream: They were featured in Life magazine, they were on TV and were neatly rolled into the counter-culture of that period,” Hansom said.
Millennials have received many of the same criticisms, and expressed the same rebellion against conformity, of members of the beat generation that came before.
Jennifer Graham, writer for The Boston Globe, said millennials are victims of their successes. Graham wrote that this generation rarely leaves their house because their needs are often met.
“There are a lot of people who are really angry at them,” Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, psychology professor at Clark University, said in Abby Ellin’s article “The Beat (Up) Generation” on Psychology Today.
The millennials matured with technology, while their parents did not. They have been surrounded by computers, high-speed internet connections, cell phones and digital media. Their childhood development acted upon technology, which dramatically differs from that of our parents.
Hansom said the beats were people who strayed away from the stereotypical “housewife” or “businessman” roles in society. In that manner, the millennials share similar boundaries with the beats. Millennials are willing to change for their own better, despite their parents’ specific ideals. In her article, Ellin said the baby boomers often disapprove of their children’s actions, because they differ from their own.
“Younger generations have long befuddled older folks — the beats, the Vietnam-era flower children, ‘the slacker’ generation X-ers,” Ellin said. “Still, millennials inspire their own brand of vitriol and an entire industry is dedicated to helping human resources interpret them.”
Similar to how researchers are interested in millennial personality traits and morals, 1960s society also questioned the beats.
“For the mainstream, they probably remained marginal nutcases, threats to the ‘normal’ way of life,” Hansom said, “and for young people a new voice that reflected their own discontents.”
According to an article posted by David S. Wills on beatdom.com, a literary journal that focuses on the beat generation, current writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers turn to the beats for inspiration. Like the beats, current artists want to escape their comfort zones and avoid conformity to society’s ways.
“Both the beats and the millennials have the opportunity to seek out a lifestyle different from the mainstream,” writer Mark Judge, in a March 2014 piece for Acculturated Magazine, said. “I see a lot of the beats in the millennials. They can’t really stay at one job very long, because they don’t like being controlled or micromanaged. They love music and are open to strange and experimental artists and sounds. They seek spirituality, but in unconventional ways.”
Hansom said small parts of the beats are still around.
“Bits and pieces of the beats remain, though in different forms,” he said. “People choose to live outside of norms, develop different communities, celebrate difference in general.”
The role of the beats in the 1950s is unlike any other, but the role of writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers share similar motives to that of the generations who went against conformity.
Kate Nalepinski is a freshman journalism major who just wants to cuddle up with a mason jar and On The Road. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.