I've written lately about the riddle Generation X poses to our cultural institutions. The women and men responsible for running many of our more traditional community landmarks - from the daily newspaper and the symphony orchestra to our system of elections - are concerned about the lack of participation they see among people in their 20s and early 30s.
"A self oriented to the short-term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience is - to put a kindly face on the matter - an unusual sort of human being." - Richard Sennett
In Indianapolis, a team of interviewers has been recruited by the Arts Council to talk to members of this age group. The hope is that by finding out about the likes and dislikes of young adults, our cultural institutions might figure out ways to make themselves more attractive to this elusive demographic.
A study like this assumes that everyone agrees society is better off for having these institutions around. This is especially true for cities, where the presence of strong cultural institutions has traditionally been a prime indicator of status and prosperity. From this vantage point, the lack of engagement with young adults is about marketing and programming. So we'll talk with these folks, find out what they want and try to give it to them.
But what if the cultural disconnect runs deeper than that?
Richard Sennett is a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. He recently participated in a debate entitled "Reflections on the Future: Thinking Politically in the Twenty-First Century" in New York City. In a statement posted on the Spiked Web site leading up to this debate, Sennett observed that an unintended consequence of the cultural revolution of the 1960s was the fragmenting of big cultural institutions. He writes, "The insurgents of my youth believed that by dismantling institutions we could produce communities: face-to-face relations of trust and solidarity, relations constantly negotiated and renewed, a communal realm in which people became sensitive to one another's needs. This certainly has not happened."
As Sennett points out, the New Left of the 1960s was equally against big government and big corporations, whose size, complexity and rigidity imposed conformity and squashed individualism. Ironically, the New Leftists got half of what they wished for. While they managed to undermine the cultural authority of institutions, they did nothing to inhibit their growth. The result is that big government and big corporations are bigger than ever, yet held to lower standards of social accountability. This has created living conditions that Sennett calls unstable and fragmentary. He goes on to say that only a certain kind of human being can prosper in these conditions. This person, he says, must be able to meet three challenges.
The first challenge Sennett identifies is time. One has to learn how to manage short-term relationships, and oneself, while migrating from task to task, job to job, place to place. "If institutions no longer provide a long-term frame, the individual may have to improvise his or her life-narrative, or even do without any sustained sense of self."
Sennett says the second challenge has to do with what he calls talent. "Practically, in the modern economy, the 'shelf-life' of many skills is short; in technology and the sciences, as in advanced forms of manufacturing, workers now need to retrain on average every eight to 12 years ... The emerging social order militates against the ideal of craftsmanship - that is, learning to do just one thing really well. Such commitment can often prove economically destructive." Sennett says that in place of craftsmanship we have embraced an idea of "meritocracy" that values potential ability over past achievement.
Sennett calls the third challenge "surrender." It's about letting go of the past. "The head of a dynamic company recently asserted that no one 'owns' their place in her organization, that past service in particular earns no employee a guaranteed place. How could one respond to that assertion positively? A peculiar trait of personality is needed to do so, one which discounts the experiences it has already had ... "
Sennett remarks that a personality like this more closely resembles the consumer who is always wanting something new - who gets rid of old if perfectly serviceable goods.
"A self oriented to the short-term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience is," Sennett writes, "to put a kindly face on the matter - an unusual sort of human being. Most people are not like this; they need a sustaining life narrative, they take pride at being good at something specific and they value the experiences they've lived through. The cultural ideal required in new institutions thus damages many of the people who inhabit them."
Let's take this a step further: The new cultural paradigm Sennett describes so succinctly is just as bad, if not worse, for institutions. For all their concern about keeping up with what's current, institutions are not supposed to be about the cutting edge. They are the constants in our cultural landscape, the source of continuity in an otherwise changing scene. Institutions are meant to be an antidote to fragmented lives, not their reflection.