Narratives in Time

All biographical interviewing raises the question about the relationship between lived life and told story, but this problem is amplified in a generational study where people are interviewed at different ages and with different degrees of distance to the issues they talk about. Memories are always reconstructions in the present of what happened in the past, and the narratives will therefore be characterised by selections, linking of memories, interpretations and chosen perspectives (Josselson and Lieblich 1993; Bruner 2003; Rosenthal 2004). Evidently, the stories of the informants’ childhood, youth and family life are seen through discourses or ‘lenses’ that belong to different historical moments, some of them of more recent date than the time they are telling us about. For the eldest generation, such later lenses providing narrative perspectives are the increased standards of living, the possibilities for education and changed norms of morality. In particular, the men emphasise the moral decay in society, whereas the women are more occupied with the increased openness about sex and bodily functions, and the diminished social differences among people. Hardly any of the lenses of the older generation are present in the stories of the middle generation; instead, their narrative perspective highlights the increased enlightenment, the psychological approach and the norm of gender equality. Several of the women in the middle generation tell stories of ‘coming out’ as feminists, with somewhat ironic depictions of themselves as young girls. They often describe themselves as caricatures of teenage girls, very different from the oldest women who may talk about their youth with humour, joy or sorrow, but never with irony. The self-caricature may also be due to the fact that the women in the middle generation describe themselves much more as members of a specific generation—and their recollections of their own youth, as well as the interviewer’s response to them, seem to merge with the media images of their generation as young people. In comparison, the older informants had neither this youth generational identity nor such a strong discourse about the historical period. ‘The hard times’ in the early 1930s seem to have a much more limited generational reference than the all-inclusive concept of ‘the 1950s’.

Time also marks the interviews through specific narrative styles. Across generations there are different ‘genres’ at work in the ways in which the informants talk about the world and their selves. The oldest generation tends to construct their stories in a rather deterministic ‘structuralist’ way. As they often say: ‘that was the way it was back then’. Many of them are good storytellers. They offer broad and generalised pictures of their family life, their activities and the community they grew up in, but also include many vivid details that almost evoke a feeling of standing in front of a naturalistic landscape painting:

I must say that I grew up in a good home. I must say I did. And father was a carpenter, so we always had skies and ski sticks. I had an awfully long way to school, so in winter we went on our skies, if the snow was good. And we had sleighs, too. We lived close to the railway station, so when we went to school, we had to go all the way down into the valley, and across the river—

I think we had a 6 km-long walk to school. (Ingrid, b. 1910)

It is the outer things that are made central: what one did, what happened, what one had and what one ate, often illustrated through concrete episodes and events. Much more often than the following generations, they talk in terms of a collective ‘we’. The descriptive and non-individualist perspective is also seen in their evaluations, where nuances and reservations are seldom conveyed: things were either good or bad—and criticism of parents and homes are very rare. To say that you are discontented seems to go against deeply rooted norms of modesty; only war, death and illnesses can be openly lamented. This also reveals a clear distance from modern reflexivity and psychological discourse. When asked whether they ever experienced adolescence as a difficult time, the (rural) women would typically respond: ‘We did not have so many problems in those times’ or ‘I can’t remember that we had like puberty and all that stuff. I can’t say I had that’. The old men talk in much of the same genre, but seem a bit more reticent than the old women. Their stories are abbreviated to their absolute essentials. However, the men more often tend to start their tale with the generation before their own—as if they need to place themselves within a larger ancestral network.

The non-individualist and emotionally low-key style of the oldest generation is echoed by the working-class men in the middle generation, who seem quite embarrassed at the request to describe themselves. However, most of the men in this generation rather willingly produce more self-focused narratives. Psychological concepts have become everyday discursive tools, and psychological models are brought in to interpret their lives and feelings:

I was in rebellion from I was in fourth to fifth grade, so I was a rebel. Against everything, actually. First parents, and that was as it usually is at that age. So then you had few things to hold on to otherwise. I think I was quite a vulnerable child, and I have it today, too, an understanding of how people are, and can detect it very quickly ... It may be a bit sentimental, but the image of dandelions growing through the asphalt. Like, always the chance to get through as long as you don’t stop. But I’ve also seen myself in the image of being someone who climbs up a hill made out of quicksand.

(Per, b. 1947)

The self-presentation here refers more to a psychological discourse, always problematising one’s own motives, seeking the answers in childhood experiences as well as reflecting upon one’s own reconstruction of memories. Whereas the men often use this discourse to depict their own personalities, the women instead tend to provide us with lengthy descriptions of family relationships and dynamics. Their recollections of activities and events often slide into interpretations and evaluations. This also seems to imply the removal of a taboo against talking negatively about others—which often involves blaming their parents, especially their mothers. Such statements can now be understood within a legitimate field of analytic and interpretative activity, not as final assertions about how somebody ‘really’ is. Such a distinction does not seem to carry much meaning for the older generation.

The women in the youngest generation still make use of this psychological discourse, but it is often at the same time ironically negated (belonging not only to their mother’s generation, but also to a trend of confessional intimacy in the media, which some of them find ridiculous). Instead of a ‘story’ of their upbringing, the youngest generation give us bits and pieces, held together more by the underlying emotional tone than by the actual information or a storyline. A reason for this is that what they describe is something they are still in, compared to the temporal distance to the childhood/youth of the older generations, but this does not exclude it from being told in a characteristic generational narrative genre:

Well, mostly we eat at home, but not dinners really. We just have a sandwich system. We make dinners when we feel like it and have sandwiches when we don’t feel like it. My mom got quite frustrated. Like every time she had made something I said: ‘Ugh, are we having that for dinner?!’ [laughs] ‘Ugh, I don’t want that. Phew!’ If it looked kind of boring. (Eva, b. 1972, 18 years old)

In some ways this is a much less personalised genre than their mothers’ descriptions of family dynamics, but still with a relational focus. Among the middle-class boys, the psychological perspective is more prominent than among girls from the same social background. But the young men also tend—just like their fathers—to use the psychological discourse to enhance their own uniqueness by underlining an explicit outsider status in a constant need to prove themselves as ‘unique’ and ‘different’.

Evidently, these generation-specific genres stem from varied sources. One could be the specific life phase of the informants: it is different to talk about your childhood and youth when you are in the midst of it, when you have children who are in the midst of it or when both you and your children survived it. It may be harder to talk negatively about dead parents than about those who are still around. Another source of the different generational genres could be the relationship in the interview situation: to the oldest generation, we as interviewers slide into the position of the respectful daughter (grandmother/grandfather tell stories about their childhood long ago), to the middle generation, the position of a female friend (intimate confessions), and to the young generation, which is on the threshold of entering university, the position of an admirable researcher (eagerly providing us with information about contemporary youth cultures) or, especially with the young men, a motherly caring figure to whom they can open their heart. Such positionings probably also colour our interpretation and analysis of the interviews as researchers: more curiosity and respect towards the oldest generation, more recognition and (self-)critique towards the middle generation, and more affection and hope when we analyse the informants who are the same age as our own children. There was yet another twist of time in the second round of interviewing where the young informants had become adults. At 30, both men and women now used mainly the psychological and relational genre, also employing it in their often-lengthy tales about jobs and careers. At 40, the focus was rather on how to manage the stressful work-life balance. At this point they were almost the same age as we as researchers had been at the first interview. It is difficult to say exactly how these things influenced the interviews, but it indicates the importance of awareness towards the age of the informants and the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee as co-producing the narratives and the perspectives chosen.

The different perspectives and narrative genres may also tell us something about historical shifts and how people come to understand themselves in different historical contexts. Viewed strictly as historical sources, all the interviews are remnants from 1991. But the fact that people from the same generations so clearly tend to pick similar discourses when constructing their memoirs of childhood and youth also makes it feasible to view these discourses as ‘small pockets of history’, preserved in the individuals. The rise of modern reflexivity, for instance, is evident in the narratives across the three generations. The concentration on the outer world among the oldest generation seems easy to understand in light of the scarcity in their childhood; the relational interest in the middle generation could be interpreted as a result of new possibilities of leisure and self-realisation; and, finally, the observing, ironic style of the youngest generation would be hard to imagine without their extensive access to the media, just as their fragmented stories might be an expression of the actual relational havoc surrounding them. The generational stories with many of the same concrete recollections indicate that there are indeed experiences to be interpreted, not only inventions of the present. As Jerome Bruner, and many others, have stated, understanding the self relies on selective remembering to ‘adjust the past to the demands of the present and the anticipated future’ (Bruner 2003: 213).

Still, the intertwinement of discursive perspectives and memories of the past evidently presents a challenge when it comes to comparing the life situations of the different generations. For example, the older women give much more elaborated accounts than their daughters of the social hierarchies in their local community and also of political disagreements, for instance, right-wing fathers and left-wing uncles yelling at each other at family reunions. Does this exclusion of a political world have to do with the obsession with psychology in the middle generation? Or rather with the fact that their childhood coincided with a period in Norwegian history (the 1950s and 1960s) when the construction of the welfare state really took off and was based on important political compromises both between political parties and in the labour market? Due both to this and to the rapidly increasing standards of living, income differences between people actually decreased.

On a purely theoretical level, problems like these may point to the futility of asking what the informants are ‘really’ talking about. However, if one poses the question on the textual level, it is often possible to get an idea of what belongs to social practices and discourses of the past, and what belongs to later discourses or the present of the interview situation. A close textual reading can, for instance, detect discrete messages about discontent that underlie the old women’s assurance that one did not have any problems in those days, or the vulnerability and seriousness that infuse the funny stories of the youngest generation. Sometimes the informants themselves highlight the difference between how they saw it then and how they see it now. As Gabrielle Rosenthal says, narratives of experienced events refer both to the current life and to past experiences. The point is to understand the course of action of the experienced events both when they happened and when they are told. What was the meaning of the event then and what is the meaning now (Rosenthal 2004: 49-50)?

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