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View the documentModernization and changing conceptions of youth and generations - S.N. Eisenstadt

Modernization and changing conceptions of youth and generations - S.N. Eisenstadt

S.N. Eisenstadt (Israel)

Rose Isaacs Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Foreign Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Foreign Member of the American Philosophical Society, Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences, and Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics. Honorary degrees from Helsinki and Harvard Universities and has been awarded many prestigious awards. Recent publications include Patterns of modernity, vols. I & II (1987), Order and transcendence: the role of Utopias in the dynamics of civilizations (1988) and Power, trust and meaning (1995).


Modernity has two closely related, but not identical, connotations. The first connotation is structural or organizational, fully epitomized in continually growing structural differentiation and in the concomitant tendency to confine structural and institutional change. The second connotation is that of a specific cultural programme or programmes - which usually also entail a strong emphasis on change - epitomized in such meanings as progress or 'evolution'.1

The combination of these connotations of modernity has given rise in all modern societies not only to continuous structural change, but also to the potential for change in the cultural definition of different areas of life and social categories. The expression of this potential can be readily seen in the changes in the conceptions and intergenerational relations of youth as they have developed in the evolution of modern societies.

Continuous institutional and structural changes have intensified the trend towards generational confrontations. At the same time, these developments, in conjunction with cultural shifts, could also generate new conceptions of youth and generation as cultural categories.

In the following paper I shall analyze some of these developments.

Youth formation in modern societies


The starting point of my analysis is the fact that in the last twenty years, after the great students' revolt of the late 1960s, some new tendencies have appeared on the scene with respect to what one could call in old parlance 'the youth problem' in modern societies. One very interesting characteristic of this new scene is that people tend now to talk much less about the 'youth problem'. There are concrete problems affecting different youth groups or sectors: problems of socialization, adolescence, vocational guidance and the like. But the talk about 'the youth problem', which was quite central for some time in the social sciences and in general public discourse during the inter-war period and also after the Second World War, has become much weaker. This is connected with the fact that the dramatic confrontations between generations, which we witnessed frequently in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up until the students' revolt, have recently become weakened in many ways. They may come back but, at least for the time being, they have waned. It would be interesting to understand the reasons for this new development.

In order to present some very tentative hypotheses about the reasons for this development, I want to put these phenomena in a somewhat broader framework: namely the framework of different modes of youth formation in modern societies, and to ask what are the social forces which have been continuously influencing the constellations of youth problems in modern societies. I want to analyze what has been changing in these forces and how such changes are affecting the contemporary scene. By the nature of my presentation I will emphasize, at the end at least, the new developments. But this does not mean that the old forces have disappeared. It only means that somehow their place in the overall framework has changed.

What are the major social and cultural forces which have influenced different youth formations - there were always many different formations of youth and youth problems - in modern societies? The first and the most obvious one (and in some ways the seemingly simplest to analyze) is the division of labour as it developed in modern societies and its consequences. Among these consequences, the most important are the growing specialization of different institutional arenas (occupational, economic and educational), the increasing specialization of different social roles, the diminishing role of the family in the occupational scene, the growth of formal education, and the growth of transitional periods in which young people are neither within the family nor yet fully in the society. These processes have been going on continuously, changing in their concrete constellations and they have become more complicated and diversified. Such diversification is a very crucial aspect of the contemporary scene. The outcomes of these processes have been studied for many years. I emphasized this problem many years ago in my book From generation to generation.2 In it I explained how, as a result of the growing complexity of the division of labour, the diminution of the place of the family and the like, there has emerged in modern societies a great variety of youth cultures or sub-cultures. Some of these sub-cultures were organized by youth groups themselves, some by different socializing agencies, and others in a combination of the two, in very great variety of ways. The multiplicity of youth cultures and sub-cultures has been a continuous fact in modern societies - and will continue to be, unless the modern (or what is now called post-modern) society changes so dramatically that the reasons for the emergence of these sub-cultures, as generated by the social division of labour, will disappear - a possibility which seems to me to be rather doubtful.


The second social process is the mode of the contrast of cultural definition in social roles; of the relations between social roles and different social life-spaces as they have developed in modern societies. As far as I know, this has not been emphasized enough in the literature as a force shaping the formation of different types of youth sub-cultures and youth phenomena in modern societies.

Among the most important aspects of modern society, as they developed until about the 1960s and 1970s, was a strong tendency to construct a very clear demarcation between different social categories and a clear categorization of different life-spaces.

Indeed, one of the basic characteristics of so-called 'modern' societies (as distinct especially from 'post-modern' societies) has been a very peculiar combination of semantic and ideological distinctions between different arenas of life, together with the development of very specific symbolic, institutional and organizational linkages between them. Among such major semantic distinctions were those between: family and occupation; work and culture; the public and private realms; between different age-spans; between the sexes; and different social classes within each of which the former distinctions were elaborated in different ways.

At the same time, these different arenas were connected symbolically, organizationally and institutionally in several distinct ways. On the personal level, these arenas were connected through a very clear structuring of life-spans, patterns of life careers of different strata of the population and of different sectors within them.

On the macro-societal level, these different semantic arenas were closely related by the connection between, on the one hand, a strong emphasis on economic-industrial development and on technological-economic creativity with, on the other hand, the creation of the new types of major socio-political centres as the major arenas in which the charismatic dimension of the ontological and social visions prevalent in these societies should be implemented.

While, needless to say, this vision of modern and industrial society - as portrayed in both scholarly literature and in more general discourse - was certainly not accepted within all sectors of modern societies, there can be no doubt that it has been for a very long period of time the most predominant and hegemonic one. Even those who opposed it - the romanticists, the prophets of Entzauberung like Nietzsche, or Max Weber with his image of the iron cage of modernity - opposed this specific structure of modern society and cannot be understood except in terms of their references to it.

The very category 'youth' is one illustration of such a categorization. It is the specific category 'youth' - not just the acknowledgement that there are young people, not even the acknowledgement of age-differences or of age-groups, but the development of the very category 'youth' as a distinct social category - that is important here. It has probably arisen for the first time in modern society. There are some possible beginnings of such a category in ancient Greece and Rome, there are kernels of this in other civilizations, but such a distinct, overarching category has appeared only in modern societies.3

Interestingly enough, until recently this has been the only category in modern societies which is based on age-differentials. Only lately is the same beginning to be true of old people. Yet, 'adult' is not the counterpart of 'youth'. It is a different dimension or category. No 'adult movement' has ever developed in modern societies. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, youth has had a very distinct category in modern societies, a very central social category. It seems to me that such sharp categorization of youth may be weakening now. But youth was not, of course, the only such category. All the major roles - occupational, gender and political - in all of the major life-spaces have been clearly defined with relatively fixed boundaries.

This mode of definition of different roles, life-spaces and of interconnections between them is not necessarily connected with a high level of differentiation or of social division of labour. For instance, in Japanese society there is a highly complex social division of labour which is not connected with the same mode of characterization of life-spaces. Life-spaces are organized in different ways, the boundaries are not so rigid, the transitions between boundaries are not so clear as in modern Western societies. In Western societies, some of these traditions may have been very confrontational ones. Others may be peaceful transitions, but the clear categorization of boundaries denotes a rather clear mode of transition between such categories.

These definitions have shaped many of the patterns of behaviour, self-perception and self-definition of large sectors of modern Western societies. Such demarcation became synonymous with what somewhat later was called the 'bourgeois revolution', but it is not necessarily related to 'bourgeois' in the economic class sense because it affected the lives of other strata. For example, it was very forceful in other sectors of the population - such as the working class. It continued to be even more forceful in some places like, at least until lately, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and to some degree in the mature phases of the Kibbutz.

A very important aspect of such distinction was, of course, divisions between social strata or classes. Each class had its own social space, which was more or less clearly defined and the transition between them was not easy. Even social movements such as socialism - which aimed to improve the place of a certain social category in overall social life, political standing and economic standing - did not necessarily aim to do away with the clear boundary differences between different social categories. Yet, they did not necessarily deny the existence of such boundaries.

Modern education and the modern school system served as one of the major carriers of this mode of definition of life-space. This fact has greatly influenced the shaping of the perception and definition of youth problems in modern societies.

One of the most interesting aspects of this process was the fact that youth was seen by itself - i.e., by young people, adolescents, older would-be adolescents and to some degree also by other groups - as a potential carrier of the charismatic, pure virtues which became lost through the development of the modern division of labour. This was due to the fact that youth was seemingly the major category that was not within the division of labour. Of course, it was strongly influenced by the division of labour, but it was highly constrained by it and basically beyond it. Because a very large part of the aspirations of modern social movements and ideologies has been oriented against the alienating aspects of the social division of labour and aimed to overcome them, youth could easily become the carrier of those pristine, charismatic virtues which one would like to see 're-crystallized' in the rather mechanized modern world. Thus, youth has become not only the clear category based on age differences, but also a distinct category imbued also with many antinomian, confrontational and distinctive potentialities.


The full impact of these potentialities can only be understood in connection with the third major factor which has greatly influenced the formation of youth in modern societies: the basic characteristics of the major social movements. The major characteristic of the 'classical' modern social movements was the attempt to reconstruct the centres of society. It was the centres of society - the new national centres, the centres of new nation-states and of class-societies, that have been the major foci of the classical social movements such as national or class-based movements.

In the initial stages of the development of modern and industrial societies, most social protest movements revolved around the revolutionary image of broadening the scope of participation and channels of access to the centres; of changing or reconstructing their cultural and social contents; solving the problems of unequal participation; and finding ways to attenuate or overcome, through the policies of the centre, the most important problems arising out of industrialization. It was the reconstruction of the centres of societies that constituted the major goals of most social and national movements in the first period of modernity, and these centres were perceived as embodying the most important charismatic dimension of the modern socio-cultural order. In other words, it was the construction of the socio-political centre, the quest for access to and participation in it, in combination with the vision of economic progress that constituted the major foci of the orientation of protest movements in early modernity. The fullest illustrations of the aims of such protest movements have been in the attempts to construct 'nation-states' and in the ideology of 'class struggles' as envisaged by the various nationalistic movements and by most revolutionary and reformist societies.

Within these social movements there arose revolutionary, confrontational and ideological youth movements. These movements also took part in the charismatic reconstruction of the centre, especially in periods of great historical change.

In the situations of intensive change which abounded in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, youth movements have become, at least in some continental European countries, an extremely important component of the numerous social movements which attempted, often in a confrontational way, to present a new, charismatic vision of the centre.

The dramatic, charismatic and confrontational youth movement - with its components of generational conflict, based on a strong generational consciousness, a consciousness of distance and difference between generations, a distance expressed in the symbols of youth which constitute a very dramatic and powerful image in social reality - has also become a very powerful image in the study of young people. Quite large parts of the literature on youth movements and on youth problems have been greatly influenced by these movements.

Changes in social roles and life-spaces

The last such movement or movements of this type were the student movements of the late 1960s. These movements exhibited some rather distinct characteristics. First of all, they were much more widespread and international than any of the preceding youth movements. Second, they were characterized by a very strong combination of intellectual antinomianism and intergenerational confrontation. Their aims were seemingly oriented at the transformation of the centre or the creation of a new centre, an entirely new society. But here there emerged a rather complicated picture. On the one hand, they failed in the simple sense that they did not change the centre of society. The centres had become very resilient. The political regimes did not change. On the contrary, they dealt quite efficiently with these movements. No political regime collapsed because of these movements, although there were wide sectors of the public who thought that there was a strong revolutionary potential in them. Paradoxically, the student movements have exerted a very far-reaching influence, or at least indicated some very far-reaching changes in the structure of societies within which they developed. They at least heralded far-reaching changes in the mode of definition of social roles and of social life-spaces in contemporary societies, as well as a great change in the definition, in the place of the political centre in the charismatic vision of society.

First of all, far-reaching changes have taken place in the older semantic and ideological distinctions between the different arenas of social life. Strong tendencies have developed to blur or recombine at least some of these arenas and to crystallize a multiplicity of semantic-ideological connections between such arenas as public and private, word and culture, occupation and residence, and new types of definition of various life styles have emerged in terms of such connections.

A second strong tendency developed to dissociate most of the major roles from the encompassing society-wide, symbolic and institutional frameworks. Occupational, family, gender and residential roles have become more and more dissociated from class and regional political party frameworks. Such various roles increasingly crystallized into continuously changing clusters with relatively weak orientations, to broad frameworks in general, and to the societal centres in particular.

Third, there has been a redefinition of many roles and role clusters - especially in the occupational sphere. There has been a growing inclusion of community or 'service' components in purely professional and occupational activities. Also, there tended to develop a growing dissociation between high occupational strata and 'conservative' political and social attitudes, creating generations of executives and professionals with political and cultural 'leftist views' and with orientations to participation in some of these new 'permissive enclaves' or sub-cultures. In the political sphere, tendencies have developed to redefine the boundaries of collectives; to increasingly dissociate the political centres and the major social and cultural collectives; and to develop new nuclei of cultural and social identities which transcend the existing political and cultural boundaries and, hence, redefine the citizenship role.

Fourth, one of the most important institutional changes connected with those tendencies has been the development of various structural, semi-liminal enclaves within which new cultural orientations (new modes of search for meaning) have evolved. These orientations, often couched in transcendental terms, tend to be developed and upheld partially as counter-cultures, partially as components of a new culture.

These enclaves, in which some people may participate fully while others do so in a more transitory fashion, may serve in some situations as reservoirs of revolutionary activities and groups; but on the whole they tend to serve as loci or starting points of far-reaching changes in roles and cultural orientations.

Lifestyles and struggles


The combinations of these changes in the semantic definition of different arenas of social life and of structural changes gave rise to a growing diversification of the process of strata formation and to the development of a variety of political, sectional and occupational formations.

Thus, instead of the situation characteristic of the 'modern' and 'industrial' society, in which different strata had relatively separate cultural traditions with distinct and common political symbols, greater dissociation among the occupational, cultural and political spheres of life have developed continuously. Different strata no longer have separate, totally different 'cultures'; they tend more and more to participate in common aspects, foci and arenas of culture in general, and mass culture in particular.

These developments have given rise to very complicated differences in lifestyles among different status groups; new status sets, to new patterns of status or class conflict and struggles; new types of status or class consciousness; to the weakening of any overall (especially class or social ideological) orientations, in the crystallization of such consciousness.

Concomitantly, a new and distinct type of status struggle has developed around the various types of welfare benefits distributed by the State. The major focus of these struggles has crystallized around the State as a distributive agency and, to a smaller degree, as a regulative agency. This can be seen in the high incidence of strikes and the struggle around social welfare benefits which aim, to a very large degree, to attain different entitlements in the form of social benefits and the like. By its very nature, this struggle covered many occupations but had little overall ideological or political orientation.

While the concrete 'economic' foci of such status or class struggles have become dispersed between the different types of demands of various occupational groups towards the State, the political and ideological expressions of status consciousness have become decreasingly focused on economic problems and much more, even if on the whole in a rather vague and unfocused way, around the development of distinct styles and patterns of life.


All these developments had, of course, far-reaching impacts on the nature of the new protest movements that developed from the 1960s onwards, starting from the students' rebellions, up to the more recent women's movements, ecological movements or those stressing growing participation in work places, different communal orientations and the like. Instead of the strong conflictual-ideological focus on the centre and its reconstruction which characterized the earlier classical social movements of modern and industrial societies, the new movements were oriented at the extension of the systemic range of social life and participation, of access to the resources and sometimes even the symbols of the centre, without a strong attempt to reconstruct them.4

Perhaps the single simplest manifestation of the change in such orientations has been the shift from the emphasis on increasing the 'standard of life' (which was so characteristic of the 1950s as the epitome of continuous technological-economic progress) to that of 'quality of life' - a shift which has been designated in the 1970s as one from materialist to post-materialist values.

Thus, one of the major characteristics of these new social movements in contrast to the classical socialist and national youth movements, is that they do not aim at reconstructing the centre. Instead, they aim to obtain from the centre enough resources to create their own life-spaces in a different way.

These two trends - first, the weakening of the clear boundaries of roles and role clusters, as well as the greater diversification of such different clusters and, second, the development of the tendencies to search for semi-charismatic fulfilment within various different enclaves of quality of lifestyles, in movements which ask for space and life-space, but not for a full reconstruction of the centre - have become very central in the more contemporary societies.

These changes in the nature of political and class struggles became very closely related to a more general tendency which may be called the de-charismatization of the political and political administrative centre. Contrary to the earlier modern period - when, as we have seen, the nation-state and class centres were conceived as the major foci of the charismatic dimension of the social order, as loci of the sacred, and their construction or reconstruction according to some charismatic vision constituted major foci of political struggle - the contemporary political centres, especially in Europe, are not perceived in such a way. The search for the sacred, for some charismatic vision, has moved to other social spaces - above all, to the various structural enclaves referred to above, to different patterns of the quality of life.

This de-charismatization of the centre was also connected with a great shift in the nature of historical consciousness prevalent in contemporary society as compared with classical modern societies. Great historical changes are, of course, taking place in Western societies, but these societies are becoming less historically conscious, and this process is accelerating. In general, there is a much weaker awareness of the conception of history as moving towards some definite goal.


These processes - the restructuring of the boundaries of roles and of life-spaces between the de-charismatization of the political and administrative centre, and the weakening of historical consciousness as a basic component of Western self-identity - are already giving rise to far-reaching changes in the formation of youth-problems in modern societies.

These developments do not, of course, do away with various effects of the growing specialization and differentiation of the division of labour, increasingly specialized education, as well as the weakening of the place of the family in the occupational scene.

Different youth groups and youth formations - spontaneous or organized by others - will continue to develop. These formations will become much more diversified than they used to be because the division of labour itself is continuously becoming much more diversified and also because the former sharp divisions between different classes, occupations, professions and different stages of education have become a bit blurred. Side by side with the growing diversification of youth formations, there will also develop new modes of generational confrontation.

One important indication of such changes is that, as we have indicated at the beginning of our discussion, there is now much less talk about 'the youth problem'. Youth is no longer perceived as a homogeneous category, nor is it necessarily a confrontational category as it used to be in the past. It is not even always a focus or carrier of potential charismatic qualities. We are, it seems to me, witnessing a very interesting, difficult-to-grasp and very important change - perhaps even the decomposition - of the overall category of youth. Again, this does not mean that there will no longer be a youth problem. Neither does it mean that there will be no family confrontations or generational differences. But even generational differences will become different because of the great change in historical consciousness and in the consciousness of historical transition to which I have referred above.

All these are, of course, only very preliminary indications, yet represent very important challenges for all those who study youth and the relationship between youth, generations and the modernity of modernization. Those who attempt to analyze the contemporary scene must take into account, to some degree at least, some of the forces which I have mentioned here.


1. S.N. Eisenstadt, A reappraisal of theories of social change and modernization, in: H. Haferkamp and N.J. Smelser, eds., Social change and modernity, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1992, p. 412-29.

2. S.N. Eisenstadt, From generation to generation, Glencoe, IL, The Free Press, 1956, p. 19.

3. For greater detail see From generation to generation, op. cit.

4. Some observations on 'post-modern' society in Volker Bornschier et al., eds., Diskontinuit├Ąt des sozialen Wandels [The discontinuity of social change], Frankfurt, Campus Verlag, 1990, p. 287-96.