Op-eds

Lost, again, in the 20s

  • Geoff
What does it mean to be a teenager in a time of coronavirus lockdown? You will grow into adulthood with a scar in your understanding of how society works and what’s permissible. But maybe you will also become an adult with an extra advantage.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Apr 02, 2020

Those who came of age during the carnage of World War I spent their early years in a time of massive sadness when huge numbers lost loved ones in the war, thousands were maimed and mentally damaged, and millions suffered the gruesome aftermath of the Spanish flu’s ravages. They are colloquially known as the “lost generation”. The generation of the 1920s suffered the physical and emotional wounds of their time, which they transmitted to further generations.

Gertrude Stein, an American writer living in Paris during the 1920s, is credited with coining the term. Ernest Hemingway popularised it in the epigraph for his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises: “You are all a lost generation”.

But the doom and gloom of being mooted “lost” aside, that “roaring twenties” era was full of great art, where the Charleston was the dance of choice, flappers and women’s rights held sway, where Picasso blossomed, and the literature of F Scott Fitzgerald was seminal. It was the time of the Harlem Renaissance, and the career of Louis Armstrong.

Today’s coming-of-age youth, particularly the South African born-frees, a part of the millennial generation, are growing into adulthood in a society where apartheid is history and joblessness and hopelessness the norm. Because of COVID-19, these young people – like the rest of us – are experiencing a traumatised society, where no-one can predict how it will end.

But end, it will. Humanity will survive; economies and societies will be rebuilt. We don’t know how; there are more questions than answers. Whatever else it brings, it will help many to focus on what’s really important in life, and the urgency of doing the things that really matter.

One already hears stories about couples who have long courted, suddenly deciding to move in together because no-one knows what will happen and they abhor the notion of not being together. Or people with long grievances against each other calling out of the blue to reconcile in friendliness. Or others trying to locate colleagues they have worked with in the past with whom they had a special connection.

It might also have the opposite effect. People who have carried protracted resentment against each other might decide to vent this anger without regard for the consequences, since they might not get another chance. Divorce, suicide, and violence might easily be among the outcomes.

Will babies born now carry any particular identity as they grow older? What will a child who was taken out of school this month, away from his friends, carry about the notion of friendship? In years to come, will people who were born at this time be named after the virus? Like the “lost generation” of World War I or the “baby boomers” after World War II?

On a more philosophical level, the value of things might take on an entirely different meaning. If the whole world and humanity are under threat, what does it matter whether one was called a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, or an atheist? A vegetarian or a meat eater? Or for Iranians, whether their hatred of Israel had any value? Or for Israelis, whether it mattered who had control over the Kotel? These questions hang in the air, but there is a future, and humanity will survive.

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