When Novak Djokovic recently paid tribute to Roger Federer, saying that the Swiss master was admired by players of Djokovic’s generation, many academic types might have had a little weep — and not because none of us will ever be able to grade papers at 130 miles per hour, or whatever the conversion might be from mph to pph.
Djokovic was born in 1987, Federer in 1981. That’s not enough time for a biological cycle in humans (though it would be for pretty much anything else in the animal kingdom). Let’s call this courtly generation the Djokovic Six.
The on-court use of the word generation might create a frisson in the world of professional athletics, but in the language of academe the word generation carries its own psychological baggage.
Who belongs to your generation? What defines the generation to which someone other than you might be said to belong?
In some contexts, a generation might be the 20 years that can, and often used to, mark the gap from birth to parenthood, or maybe from ovum to Wimbledon. But we can’t comfortably assume anyone means 20 years when the word “generation” is invoked today.
If you’re a professor, you might identify with the cohort of fellow students you knew in graduate school, those energetic young contemporaries who discovered Foucault or Butler or Agamben, or de Beauvoir or Mandelbrot or Chomsky or either of the Friedmans (Milton or Thomas) at the same time you did.
An awareness of contemporaneity is one factor in establishing a generation. You kind of know when yours is. Was. Still is.
But generation can have boundaries both soft and insistent at the same time. Advertising and satire have helped us, though not in a helpful way, with the Pepsi Generation and the Me Generation. Psychodemographers have given us Generation X. We have (and if we don’t yet, we will soon) the Zuccotti Park Generation and, locally, generations named after other notable local events.
There are many examples of groups identified as the “generation of” — the history of modern Spanish literature, for example, enshrines the Generation of 1898 and the Generation of 1927 as groups of writers who shared concerns or values responding to the crises of the moment.
There’s some comfort in seeing oneself or one’s peers as part of a chronologically meaningful unit. We do it all the time. (“My generation was happy with the Princess phone. Every call was magic.” Or “My generation always asks for recyclable paper bags at the grocery store, you selfish plasticist.”)
But the ice gets thinner when you look at those outside of what one thinks of as one’s own generation.
Sentences that begin “academics of your generation” are likely to contain value judgments (“in my generation we did this sort of thing without needing to consult a life coach first”) or nostalgia (“in my generation there were jobs”). But it’s not clear how long any of these academic generations might be.
Our generation is a group of timeless people who have the bad taste to be dying off (this is the only activity that speeds up with increased age). Your generation is some sliver of time before our generation.
Is the most recent generation 20 years before ours? Thirty? The Djokovic Six?
There will be different answers for different contexts.
Time’s chariot is winged, and she’s got a killer backhand.
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