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What Causes Generation Gaps

Strepsiades, in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds, sends his thriftless son Pheidippedes to the bumbling Socrates’ “thinkery” so he can learn to argue his way out of the family debts. Only, the son learns to argue too well:

STREPSIADES: I’ll explain, right from the start, how the quarrel began. You know we were having a big feast. Well, I asked [my son Phidippides] to take his lyre and sing a song by Simonides, “The Shearing of Mr. Ram.” And straight away he says, “That’s so antiquated, that is—playing the lyre and singing at a drinking party—what do you think we are, women grinding corn?”

Although comedians exaggerate, we know that a generational gap was present in Athens at the time. The strife in this scene originates from shifting artistic taste but ends in a discussion of virtues. The father says “I raised you as a baby,” and the son says “reason, not age, should guide our actions” (although absurd reasons are used in the play).

I can relate to the scene. My wife’s parents prefer older movies, with the actors they know and love, which espouse their Christian values. During our visits, we would watch a movie each night. After several nights I tire of the plowing pace and predictable plots of the older movies. One time, we suggested watching the first episode of one of our favorite shows—a popular action fantasy. We had forgotten about the loose morality of the characters. My wife’s parent’s horror grew until the end of the episode, when (coincidentally) a brother and sister were caught sleeping with one another! Fortunately, no verbal or physical fight followed.

It seems that generational gaps form in rapidly changing societies since the younger generation grows in a different environment than their parents, and the parents, as all humans do, tend to prefer what they are used to.

If this is true, we may expect less generational strife in static societies, like ancient Egypt (where the art, technology, and politics were uniform for centuries). In societies with a lot of change, like classical Athens, or modern society with our rapid technological change, we expect more generational strife.

The long quote is taken from Alan H. Sommerstein’s 2002 translation.