When Worlds Collide #75: Watching Sri Lanka’s Children of ‘77

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 21 July 2013

Watching Sri  Lanka's Children of '77 Word Cloud

When launching the column 18 months ago, I chose this theme because I am fascinated by worlds colliding all around us, all the time. It happens in both physical and metaphorical realms, I said, some of it so subtle and gradual that we really have to pay attention to notice.

Inter-generational tensions are nothing new, but there is one collision of worlds in Lankan society that I have been watching with much interest.

As I noted in my first column: “We have finally seen the end of our war, but the deeper forces of history, geography and ideology are locked in numerous slowly unfolding confrontations. Some would like to take us to the feudal times of the past. Others want unbridled fast-tracking to an uncertain future. The Children of ’56 are in charge — but being increasingly challenged by the Children of ’77.”

Both terms loosely define a particular generation and the larger ethos of their times. Much of what unfolds in today’s Sri Lanka could be reduced to a contest between the two. Things are actually a bit more complex.

Pivotal Years

Children of ’56 refers, broadly, to those born in the mid 1950s onwards and grew up with the socio-cultural changes initiated in 1956. That was a turning point in newly independent Ceylon’s history when Oxford-educated aristocrat S W R D Bandaranaike, founder of Sri Lanka Freedom Party, won the election and formed a coalition government.

SWRD and JR - transformative in their own ways

SWRD and JR – transformative in their own ways

His legacy is still being hotly debated, and we won’t get into that here. But the policy changes he introduced – such as the language policy and Swabhasha education – had far reaching consequences. Good or bad depends on where you stand, and how you were impacted.

I’m not sure who first coined the term, but some of the finest explorations of this topic were written by the late Ajith Samaranayake, journalist and editor, who once referred to himself as a child of 1956.

Ajith described the post-1956 generation as one with a high degree of political consciousness and deeply immersed in the art and culture of their times. Three years before his untimely death, he wrote in 2003: “This is the generation which has shaped the literary and cultural consciousness of our times whether as writers, dramatists or film-makers or as critics, journalists and commentators.”

In comparison, less has been studied and written about Sri Lanka’s Children of ’77. They were born in the mid 1970s onwards, and grew up with the sweeping changes introduced by J R Jayewardene whose United National Party won the general election of 1977.

JR decisively changed the island’s trajectory of history by liberalizing the economy and ending years of socialist misadventures. No wonder his legacy is even more hotly debated, especially by the Children of ’56! Some can never bash him enough…

But let that political sentiment not be held against the Children of ’77. Their future was determined by how a substantial number of their parents voted exactly 36 years ago this week!

Sri Lanka Population Pyramid 2012Sri Lanka Population Pyramid 2012:

Source: http://www.indexmundi.com/sri_lanka/median_age.html

Demographics matter

According to the 2012 census figures, 40% of our population is 24 years or under. And Sri Lanka’s median age – the exact age where half the population is older and the other half is younger – is around 31 years.

The many demographic insights contained in the latest census data deserve wider discussion. It hasn’t happened in sufficient depth and detail with most attention being paid to the tribal labels of race and religion.

But half of all Lankans alive today were not even born when JR triumphantly declared himself the duly elected leader of all people. And then set out to modernize our economy and society, unleashing forces that he couldn’t have fully imagined…

Mind you, Children of ’77 are more a socio-cultural denominator than any demographic one. We’re not talking of any baby boom. But the post-1977 changes defined both the material and philosophical underpinnings of that group.

Among other things, they are our first generation to grow up with broadcast television (introduced 1979/82), mobile phones (1989) and Internet (1995). These technologies and media have impacted all of us, completely redefining how we talk, read, study and entertain ourselves.

Their impact is by no means confined to the Children of  ’77, but they alone are ‘digital natives’ – those who have grown up taking these for granted from birth. The rest of us are ‘digital immigrants’, always playing catch up.

Post 1977, Sri Lanka switched to a faster-track. For example, infrastructure development gained pace, typified by the accelerated Mahaweli River programme. The leisurely game of cricket turned into a professional money-spinner after gaining Test status in 1981.

Children of ’77 have grown up in turbulent times. Some might have been just old enough to remember Black July riots of 1983. More would carry the scars of the southern youth insurrection of the late 1980s, and the northern separatism that escalated into a civil war.

Coming of Age

Bathiya & Santhush - image from music.lkAmidst unprecedented opportunity and unparalleled trauma, Children of ’77 have come of age. The early-borns entered the work force over a decade ago. Many are rising in commerce and culture, already redefining whole industries. Think of Bathiya & Santhush, among the biggest names in Lanka’s popular music.

Recently, the business magazine Echelon chronicled some rising stars in areas of enterprise and innovation. Introducing their 40 under 40 list, the editors said: “They are young innovators, disruptors, thought leaders and builders of businesses who touch the lives of people all over the world by creating jobs, influencing actions and developing new ways of doing things.” (See: http://www.echelon.lk/home/40-under-40/)

How soon might Children of ’77 also transform politics and academia, two realms where hierarchy and orthodoxy still hold sway (dominated, ironically, by many Children of ’56)? Can they use television and the web in more creative (and disruptive) ways to accelerate Sri Lanka’s belated entry into the 21st century? Will the old yield to the new easily?

For these and more reasons, I’m an avid watcher (and occasional chronicler) of the Children of ’77. Their story deserves deeper debate.

Born almost equidistant between the pivotal years of 1956 and 1977, I consider myself an in-between. In practical terms, we were old enough to have stood in the bread queues of the early 1970s, yet young enough to have ridden liberalisation’s early waves.

Oh, I do question and critique the development disparities of this growth model – but don’t wish to throw the baby out with bathwater. Our phantom socialists and shrilly development activists, on the other hand, love to malign the liberalized economy. Never mind it has been state policy for 36 years!

Sadly and wrongly, many such critics extend their disdain also to the post-1977 generation. One recent outburst (written under a pseudonym) dismissed them thus: “…they are bereft of a leader, they are bereft of a visionary and they are bereft of a vision”. (Read full text, with discretion: http://tiny.cc/Cof77)

Well, here’s some news for all professional cynics: this demographic group will shape the future of our culture, commerce, media and eventually, policy and governance too.

Call them whatever you like — Children of ’77, Generation Y or the Millennials. The numbers and history are on their side. Like it or not, they are rising. They are different.

Get used to it. Engage them. Or just get out of the way.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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