Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Katy Waldman and the sometimes influence of our twenties

Today I had intended to write about politics or economics or, perhaps, a combination of the two! Instead, I got sidetracked.

The long weekend edition of the Australian Financial Review combined the normal Friday and weekend editions. I often buy the Friday edition just to read the Review section  for its collection of longer pieces from around the world. This time, the Review reprinted a Slate article by Katy Waldman, The Mysteriously Memorable 20s. The subtitle gives the theme: "Why do we remember more from young adulthood than from any other time of our lives?" It's a well written piece, but it got me thinking. I don't think that she is quite right. At least, that's not been my experience. But then, the evidence may be drawn from what we think of as "normal people" as classified at points in time.

In saying this, I am drawing from my own experience, but also from the people that I have spoken to or even interviewed. My experience has been that people remember most vividly those periods of their life that have an emotional intensity both high or low that in some ways marks an important period of passage. Often, we do block out the bad. We don't forget about it, we just don't want to talk about it. But in many people's lives, the subsequent good is valued more highly because it contrasts with the dark night. We carry the scars always, we try to put those aside, talking about things highlighted by the black unseen light of the dark past.

As both a reader and writer, I am fascinated by biography. The thing that stands out to me, the fascination, is simply the complexity of it all. In many western societies, we have forgotten how unstable life is. What we think of as normality is not normal at all.

Just take Australia in the twentieth century. At Federation, many parts of the country had just emerged from a great depression. Drought was raging, affecting people in ways outside modern ken because so many were directly or independently dependent on the land. The Great War began thirteen years later, with Australia suffering some of the highest casualties relative to population of any of the belligerents. The Great Depression followed twenty eight years after Federation, then ten years later came the Second World War.

The new Australian migrants and especially the million plus displaced people, what we would now call refugees, who came to this country were focused on survival, on recreating life in a new land. In conversation or interview, they did talk about the past prior to the war, ut did so because that more peaceful time was a relief from what was to come. And, even then, it was not clear-cut. They didn't say that their values or scripts were formed in childhood or in their twenties, but in the meld of their earlier memories with the horrors that followed.

By contrast, those born locally during the war or afterwards were the lucky generation, the first to experience a really long period of relative piece and prosperity. The nearest previous equivalent was the long period between the depression of the late 1840s and that of the crash of the late eighties, also a period of relative peace.

So I'm not sure about the validity of Katy's writing or the research on which it is based. I think that it's validity is time dependent and depends upon circumstance.

As a final aside, the nearest equivalent period to me in terms of her model is not the age twenties at all, It is the time from which I entered what is now called grade ten until I graduated from university and started work in Canberra. I was then twenty one. That early working experience and the life of a young relatively well paid single in Canberra in a share house far from home was another right of passage. But it was different.

My own life has been a series of chapters marked by sudden book-ends, abrupt shifts. If I was to apply some of Katy's questions, I would say that the period with the greatest long term impact on my values and attitudes was my school period. My views have changed considerably over my life, but I think that the statement is still true. And I left school at seventeen after repeating final year because my parents thought that I was too young to go to university.

When I look at my daughters, I think that the same thing is probably true. I have no idea how they will remember their twenties, I will ask if I survive long enough, but at twenty three and twenty five, they are closer to Katy's generation. They also come from a very different generation to mine. And that, I think, should be my end point, for our views are formed by our times.  

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