The multifaceted category of “generation”: elderly French men and women talking about May '68

Annette Gerstenberg 1
  • 1 Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Abstract

In this article we focus on the communicative relevance of the category of generation, which is often, in sociolinguistic research, restricted to the meaning of age group, connected in a more or less explicit way to an almost conservative attitude on (linguistic) values. We examine the generational references in the life narratives of elderly French men and women in order to ascertain the personal meaning as it takes place in discourse. This analysis is based on statements made about May '68 in France. The events of May '68, as well as their historical and current importance, have been described as promulgating the concept of generation: May '68 can be considered a generational keyword. The statements in the narratives discussed in this article reveal a variety of standpoints and references made in old age, statements that challenge the idea of a homogeneous age group in terms of historical evaluation and memory. On the basis of four case studies of interviews with elderly people, we trace the sequential structure of a personal generational identity created when talking about May '68. In the individual points of view expressed therein, we find four dimensions of the concept of generation: (i) in the opposition of values; (ii) in the opposition of old and young; (iii) in the opposition of the generations in a family and their ideological implications; and (iv) as a generation of ideas and possibilities, pertaining — as the member of such a generation — to the past.

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