Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Children of the '70s learned from freedom, disorder

WE'RE familiar with talk about how Vietnam permanently shaped Baby Boomers.

But if you grew up in or near an American city in the 1970s, you grew up with crime and divorce, and this disorder was bound to leave a permanent mark.

It was bound to shape the people, now in their 40s and 50s, who are reaching the pinnacles of power.

It has clearly influenced parenting. The people who grew up afraid to go in parks at night now supervise their own children with fanatical attention, even though crime rates have plummeted.

It's as if they're responding to the sense of menace they felt while young, not the actual conditions of today.

The crime wave killed off the hippie movement. The hippies celebrated disorder, mayhem, and the whole dionysian personal agenda. By the 1970s, the menacing results of that agenda were all around.

The crime wave made it hard to think that social problems would be solved strictly by changing material circumstances. Shiny new public housing blocks replaced rancid old tenements, but in some cases the disorder actually got worse.

The crime wave made it hard to accept the storyline that the poor were always spiritually pure, noble, and oppressed.

The crime wave eroded the sense of solidarity that existed after World War II. The rich isolated themselves. The middle classes moved to the suburbs.

Yet eventually crime was reduced, and the neighborhoods were restored. It's easy to be nostalgic for the supposedly more authentic New York of days gone by - for Jane Jacobs' busy Greenwich Village block.

But as Benjamin Schwarz of The Atlantic recently observed, that golden image really only applied to small parts of New York City. And it only applied during a transition moment when the manufacturing economy of the mid-20th century briefly overlapped with the information economy of the late-20th century.

As John Podhoretz rightly notes in a wonderful essay called "Life in New York, Then and Now" in the current issue of Commentary, if you grew up in a big city in the 1970s, then life is better for you now in about every respect.

Today, most liberals and conservatives have more-sophisticated views on how to build and preserve civic order than people did then, and there is more of it.

The Upper West Side is still integrated. And despite all expectations, it's actually more religious now. For example, there are now 4,000 children attending yeshivas, Jewish schools, and Jewish nursery schools in the neighborhood.

The children of the '70s grew up with both unprecedented freedom and disorder, and have learned, in mostly good ways, from both.

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.

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