Monday, October 10, 2011

Age, generations & the understanding of culture

I had a post part prepared yesterday morning and then had to put it aside.

The delay was part Rugby induced. Both Saturday and Sunday's games (there were two each day) were very good. Australia won over the South African Springboks to get through to the semi finals. There the Wallabies meet the All Blacks, so there are going to be tears on one side or other of the ditch.  

The Rugby was not the only reason for the delay.

I had wanted to discuss cultural variations within and across Australia, a post triggered by comments on Saturday's post, Saturday morning musings - rain, Terra Nova & The Slap. I still think that what I wanted to argue was right, but I ran into a problem.

I have commented before that our personal knowledge of the past is effectively limited to the three generations before us, and diminishes with each generation back. The same type of pattern actually applies to our knowledge of the present as well. 

As children, we know our age group plus have some feeling for all those above. Our knowledge of the age groups coming after us is less. This creates an asymmetry that increases with age. Our direct knowledge of what people think and feel across generations is diminished.   

Things such as work, social activities and our families do keep us in touch with younger age groups. We may not agree, but we have access. If that access is taken away, we quickly lose touch. Retired people do not age more than a person of their age still working, but they often seem to because the world around them has moved on.

Take another example.

Between them, the girls were at school for over fourteen years if we include preschool. During that time, we were mixing with parents, teachers and indeed kids all the time. I had at least some feel for the school world, for the concerns of those involved.

Even with this level of contact, the same type of asymmetry existed; the school is like the broader community writ small. By the end of the girls' time at school, both were commenting on what that they saw as the changes in the attitudes and behaviour of girls just entering secondary school as compared to them. There was, they thought, less respect for rules.

I have no idea as to the accuracy of this view. I do know just how quickly school vanished from my horizon after the girls left and with it all the knowledge and concerns that I once had.

Australia is a very varied country, far more so than most Australians realise. The way people think is separated by locale, position in society, family history. These divisions have increased with time: Australia has become more variegated; almost unconsciously, Australians have become more tribal. Communications technology and mass media give an increased if superficial sense of "one country"; drop below this and difference abounds.

This is where my problem comes in. Given my age and range of contacts, I hesitated to draw conclusions about, say, the special features of Melbourne today. I actually have a blind spot in certain age groups, a blind spot accentuated by geography. 

I actually know Melbourne quite well and have done so for many years. When I first visited the city as a sixteen year old, my initial reaction was a sense of difference from Sydney, the metro centre I knew best, as well as from Armidale. I almost could have been an another country. In some ways, this is still my view. 

I am generally comfortable with my cultural analysis of Melbourne and of the differences between Melbourne and other parts of Australia, although some of this dates back to academic work I did in the early 1980s as well as to my still earlier experiences. Melbourne consciously plays to this difference, as in the city's reinvention of itself as a life style centre.

However, when I come to look at specific groups from specific areas or of specific ages, when I move from the general to the particular, I have to careful what I say. I cannot be certain.

I will complete the post since the topic of cultural differences across time and space interests me. In the meantime, I doesn't do me any harm to realise gaps in my own thinking. 


Neil said...

I don't know if you saw Christos Tsiolkas on Compass on Sunday but if not do go and look: There may be a transcript shortly too.

He was very modest and very interesting on some of those very cultural issues that interest you. Bright man.

Just reflecting too that I am actually older than you, young man. ;) Also that I am reverting to being a Wollongong person, even a Shire person, lately... But you may have noticed. Perhaps it's second childhood coming on.

Jim Belshaw said...

Oh dear, older! I will look at the Compass program.

I have, of course, noticed the reversion to Wollongong, even Shire. Good taste actually :)