It’s the age-old question - the debate that filled countless Letter to the Editor pages long before it clogged up comment sections, blogs and our social media feeds; which generation had the best childhood?
It’s only natural for each of us to grow-up with a romantic idealism of our youth - one that seems to get more profound as we age. Our society has a perverse fascination and sense of satisfaction from reading about escalating housing prices, or tales of internet trolls, looking on pityingly at today's kids and sighing ‘they don’t have a shot...not like us’.
The Silent Generation did it about the Boomer’s, with their free-love, rock and roll, and long hair. Boomer’s tutted their way through the 80’s and 90’s at Gen X and the slacker generation filled with MTV, grunge and Bart Simpson. And as a Millennial I have definitely spent my fair share of time lamenting poor Gen Z who never got to experience a youth without the internet or smart phones.
So what’s the answer? Who had a better childhood?
Before we start arguing about student loans and interest rates, shouldn't we be asking ourselves; What does ‘better’ actually mean?
So often when we enter the generation debate we focus solely on material aspects of life, and how things have worsened - you know the one - often over-simplified, exaggerated and with no regard for inflation; “In 1978 our parents bought a house for $21 and earned $50,000, university was so free that they handed you $1,000 every time you showed up for lecture, a bottle of milk cost 3 cents, and, they had so much money they used $50 notes to wallpaper the lounge (which, I remind you, they owned!!!). No wonder they have a holiday home in Queenstown and a spa!”
There’s no denying that a world with no student debt, where home-ownership is achievable for all, and a steady career should be within reach for all who want it. But is it just about the things?
This childhood that our parents, and our grandparents, experienced were well and good if you were a white, cisgender, heterosexual who wanted to grow up to get married by 25, have a couple of kids and live a quiet and unassuming life in the suburbs. If you were a girl, you were happy to have no career or tertiary education in order to become a housewife, in a world where feminist is a dirty word, and you should be grateful for an unsolicited pat on the bum from a stranger on the bus.
But what if you weren’t these things?
What if your skin wasn’t white? What if you were queer, bisexual, or transgender? What if you struggled your whole life with mental health issues that never got diagnosed, or got you sent to shock therapy? What if you didn't want to get married, or have kids? Or what if you did, but your sexual identity didn’t fit society's expectations and meant that you couldn’t? What if you didn’t want to forego an education or career to be a housewife and a mother?
A childhood where you’re allowed to play ball on the street and get a free university education doesn’t really mean a lot if you can’t live your life freely. If you’re discriminated against, punished, and forced to live in the shadows and a lie, simply for being yourself.
What kind of childhood is that?
Children today are born into a world of acceptance and choice. A society that is inclusive, accepting, and open to them - whoever they are, or want to be. Sure, we’re not completely there - but through the likes of social media and online activism, there is a space to be heard, celebrated and seen - to know you’re not alone. This is a time where the NZ Green Party’s petition to end conversion therapy amassed 150,000 signatures in 72 hours and the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements live strongly in public domain and consciousness.
The social media that so often gets scorned for cyberbullying and time wasting is so often a portal of kindness, support and friendship for many. It’s a place to make lasting connections, meet future lovers, and build strong and supportive communities.
The internet is so often painted as the villain in the narrative of our kids’ lives, but it is more often than not a place for enlightenment, entertainment and education. At no other time have we been able to access so much information for free. We can learn and see anything we want - and yes, there are dark places and content online, but a lack of internet sure didn’t stop bad things from happening in the past.
We assume that our children and our children’s children want what we wanted - a tertiary education, monogamy, marriage, kids, a linear career and a mortgage - the very things that we continue use as a measuring stick for success, as evidence in our ongoing arguments over who had it best - but what if they don’t actually want all of these things?
The world around us is changing at a staggering rate - the impact of climate change is undeniable and breathtaking in its severity and speed. The past year has taught us that we no matter how evolved we think we are, we are not immune from plague and pandemics.
The shifting world also shifts the mindsets and expectations of generations to come.
Since Covid-19 entered our lives, many no longer see the need for a conventional office space, classroom and long commutes. We have come to appreciate the benefits from working from home when we want to, having more time and ease with our daily schedules and enjoying increased quality time and slow-moments together with our family. Those overseas holidays, and cheap flights that we came to expect in our lives, that we felt inferior about if we didn’t get at least one per year, as if it was our right - are no longer factors to consider. And what has been the consequence of that? Well, we’re fine. We’re exploring our backyard of Aotearoa. We’re reconnecting with our gardens, with nature, reading more books and learning new hobbies...or we’re discovering how to rest and be still for the first time in our lives, We’re slowing down. Some of us dare to whisper, in hushed tones, that we’re feeling happier this way - with less of the social pressure and expectations that we’ve had pumped into us since childhood.
Climate change, whether we like it or not, will affect the way we live, and how the current generation of kids grow up and see the world. Greta Thunberg, our current voice for climate change activism and generation Z, leads the way - and what an inspiring way it is, putting every generation above her to shame. Perhaps our children will also view our petrol guzzling status-symbol European cars, stand-alone houses full of fast-fashion and disposable plastic appliances as gauche, irresponsible and outright dangerous to the planet and the future of humanity.
Perhaps, instead, communes of shared land, housing, labour and resources will be the future for our children, and their children. A sustainable life abundant with community, sustainability, self-grown food, and less work pressure, might just be their way.
We live in a capitalist society that prizes material wealth, the 40 hour work week, 24/7 email, shiny cars, lavish holidays, weddings that cost an average annual salary, and mortgages that take a lifetime to pay off. And yet these are still the things by which we measure the question ‘Who had the best childhood? Which generation had it all?’.
When we remove these material things and societal expectations and instead look at the question holistically, spiritually, in the context of living a life true to ourselves, we have to agree that a child growing up in a world free to be whoever and whatever they want is the most important thing of all.
The options and hope and possibility that await our children, the education and information at their fingertips, and shifting global perspective on sustainability and financial expectations casts no doubt hat this is the brightest, most hopeful generation yet - on this basis - our children are the most fortunate generation, the ones who will be the most fluid, the most free and the most enlightened. And, therefore, the happiest.
Anyone who has been oppressed in their lives, been forced to live a life in the shadows and discriminated against won’t ever argue that the past generations of kids had it better.
A childhood based on happiness, freedom, equality and inclusivity is the best childhood of all.