1968 was a tumultuous, world-altering year. Major historical events occurred on every inhabited continent as societies struggled to define themselves in light of whirlwind-speed technological and political developments. Younger generations played a major role in the historical events and movements of the time, especially in Western Europe. Historians can use the concept of generation to interpret and understand the causes and ideas of the political and cultural revolt of 1968 in Western Europe. However, if they focus too much on the role of generation, they risk missing connections between broader social movements and divisions within generations themselves.
Mannheim defines the generation using a series of parameters in his essay, “The Problems of Generations.” The first and broadest parameter is “generation location.” Incorporating both the generation’s temporal and geographic location, the generation location allows surface-level separation of different groups. The secondary parameter involves generation as “an actuality… where a concrete bond is created between members of a generation by their being exposed to the [same] process of dynamic destabilization.” Mannheim then introduces generation units, which are subgroups that “work up the material of their common experiences in different specific ways.” Using these parameters allows historians to specifically interpret the role of different groups within generations without broadly categorizing a singular, massive demographic as a monolith—as many people may do when they make generalizations about groups like “the youth of the 1960s.”
Most of the young postwar generation in Western Europe during 1968 struggled to make sense of their rapidly changing societies and their remarkable differences from previous generations. The younger generation grew up in a completely different environment than their parents, markedly altering their perception of the world. As Mannheim writes, for youth “life is new, [and] formative forces are just coming into being,” meaning they are much more influenced by their current realities than the unlived history of their countries. Many members of the young generation of 1968 naturally offered newer, radical ideas which inspired and shaped many of the revolts across the continent.
In France, a large student revolt in Paris sparked a massive nationwide series of strikes and workplace occupations. The students’ overarching demands were vague and anarchistic, ostensibly aimed at “humiliating authority.” The student revolt inspired a series of protests in factories around the country after French Prime Minister Pompidou fulfilled the student’s demands, “raising the expectations of other social groups.” The student and worker movements had quite separate demands from each other, reflecting the differences between the younger student generation and older workers. While the students’ needs were more vague, the workers demanded better wages and more democratic workplaces—things more immediate to them than to the students, who primarily came from comfortable middle class backgrounds.
In Italy, a separate but similar chain of events also occurred in 1968. Students in Turin and Rome began rioting over changes in university policy, but their movement quickly converged with the Italian workers movement. The Italian students and workers were able to work much more closely together than in France because the younger generation of university students had similar feelings as the unskilled Italian workers, who had migrated to the industrial north of the country. The students and workers also worked more closely because Italy’s social welfare system was basically non-existent at the time: in 1968, protesters were still calling for a comprehensive national pension scheme.
Historians who study the transnational movements of 1968 often focus on similarities between younger, radical generation units: they were university students who rejected the capitalistic policies of their states and the communist policies of the East. By focusing too much on the similarities, historians might miss important differences between generations in different countries and movements. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the context of individual countries and regions before attempting to understand the role of generations in the cultural and political movements of 1968.
Understanding the state’s response to generations in the movements of 1968 is also key to analyzing the generations themselves. In Italy, the press referred to student revolters as “left-wing fascists” in order to scare the older population, who had lived through fascism and were scared of communism. They also frequently published photos “linking students to Chinese communism.” Although university students collaborated with broader workers movements at the time, the ruling class aimed to exploit generational divides for political means by villainizing them in the press. However, in France, the press didn’t focus as much on the role of generation in the student revolts: “only a posteriori were [the French protests] reinterpreted as a generational revolt.” French society took a rather “apolitical” stance towards the students. The differences in the state and societal treatment of generations in France and Italy can also offer insight into the extent and length of generational solidarity. In France, student protests dissipated relatively quickly. In Italy, the revolutionary spirit lived on for much longer, and “many students said that they rejected the family in favor of greater commitment to their peer group and to collectivist ideas.” The differences amongst the young generation and its treatment in different countries offer historians better insight into the different social movements in 1968.
It is also important to remember that generations are not monolithic, as suggested by Mannheim’s concept of generation units. Although historians focus on the role of university students in 1968, they comprised a very small segment of the actual youth population. In Italy, for example, only “one young person in seven… was attending university.” Historians can easily overlook the beliefs of the less vocal components of the youthful generation. The majority of university students came from middle class families: “the privileged children of the bourgeoisie were screaming revolutionary slogans and beating up the underpaid sons of southern sharecroppers charged with preserving civic order” in Italy while riot police in France were “recruited from the sons of poor provincial peasants.” The stark class difference between these generation units would be a critical factor in understanding future attitudes of the population.
The concept of generation played a key role in the cultural and political revolts of 1968. New ideas, beliefs, and systems of resistance were born from a youthful generation that was the first to grow up in a fully developed, consumerist Europe. Historians should try to understand why generation units believed what they did in order to understand broader cultural and political changes at the time. However, generation was far from the only factor that shaped the 1968 revolts. Different groups had their own ideas and beliefs, even if the loudest voices were those of the youth. Still, understanding the role of generation within the 1968 movements is fundamental to understanding those movements and the lasting societal and ideological changes they fostered.
Image: Protesters gather at the Place de la République during the demonstration of May 13, 1968 in Paris. (Jacques Marie/AFP Photo/Getty Images)
Luke Henderson is an undergraduate student at the Walsh School of Foreign Service studying global business. He is interested in the effects of globalization on society and the economy. Outside of Georgetown, Luke loves hiking and traveling to new countries.