Are Gen Xers: the New Baby Boomers?

Nadia Bolz-Weber circa 1994
Nadia Bolz-Weber circa 1994

I recently realized that someday I too will be a baby boomer. It’s not that the year of my birth will mysteriously jump to 1959 but that culturally I will become (or realistically I have already become) that which I criticize.

Complaining about Baby Boomers is a part time job for Gen Xers in church leadership.  I sometimes say that mine is the Prince Charles generation…Boomers are never going to retire and the crown will pass right to Gen Y. My theory about why Baby Boomers have difficulty listening to younger generations or even entertaining the idea that maybe they are not as culturally relevant as they once were, is that Baby Boomers were the first generation to come of age in what we call youth culture.   Prior to 1950’s there simply was not a distinct teenage and young adult culture.  (The advent of such was deeply rooted in marketing opportunities within the burgeoning consumerism of post-war America.) So I wonder if, being the first generation to grow up with the idea of themselves as being culturally “young”, if Baby Boomers have, to large extent, not adjusted to the idea that they are, well…old.   The counter-cultural and anti-war movements in their formative young adult years instilled a lingering identity that prevents them from realizing just how much a part of the Establishment they have become.

Of course there are many exceptions to my characterization of the generation that came before me and I am painting with an awfully broad brush and perhaps lacking in generosity.  But the purpose of this post is not to make my case about Boomers, it’s to say that I realize that soon, if not already, I will be the one of whom younger generations say she doesn’t get it. A day will come (or is already here) when exasperated young leaders in the church will be begging me and my Gen X peers to hand over power based in part or full on our inability to grasp the cultural changes that have taken place since we began our careers.  “Hold on” I (cringe to) imagine myself saying, “I’m a heavily tattooed, cool emerging church pastor.  I know what young adults want…just stick with some Gregorian chant, interactive ancient liturgy and candles…lots and lots of candles.”  And when these younger leaders roll their eyes at me and say how irrelevant, un-hip and out-of-touch I am I think I know how that will feel: like shit.






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  • Trying to figure out how to have helpful conversations across the three cohorts is – at one and the same time – the thing that most excites me and that most frustrates me … especially as we are all dreaming about the church that is being born. I am entering that generative stage of my life/ministry at which I really want to focus on empowering/resourcing Gex X and Y leaders, and I’m trying to figure out how to do that most helpfully as a Boomer. Thanks for naming and living out these tensions.

  • So this brings up some interesting questions…do we need to rethink and understand that a ministry to specialized groups come with an automatic expiration date…are we only viable as long as we are part of that same group…where does intergenerational ministry come in? Are we learning that we should create specialized denominational communities, is that a goal? Is there an expiration date for gen-xers who will need to move on to other communities after they reach a certain age? I am asking as I am faced with a move and creating a new community as a baby-boomer..I LOVE what I see from HFASS and I loved what I saw when I visited Church of Apostles in Seattle…yet I was pretty clear that if I lived there (at the latter) I would simply be past the expiration date for joining them. I simply am not a gen-xer but a baby-boomer so do I only “market” to baby-boomers? Anyway, love the blog and love what you are doing! Thanks!

  • See, but that’s exactly what makes you (and me) Xers. We’ve never pretended we understood or stood for everyone. Boomers have long touted a party line and everyone was excluded as too old or too young. Many seem to struggle with the idea that there can be more than one point of view (besides theirs) about anything.

    Also, I agree–they don’t seem to understand that they’re old. My in-laws, one of whom is retired and the other who will retire this year, don’t believe they’re “old” or even “older.” Their son turns 40 this year, so how they can see themselves as middle-aged anymore has my scratching my head. My husband and I, on the other hand, want to know if people will finally stop telling us “oh, you’re so young” and calling us “youngsters” and the like. Honestly, I think after spending nearly four decades being told we’re so young (with the all inherent implications of inexperience and ignorance about the world) that we’re ready to be old. I think most of us never thought we could speak for anyone but some in our generation (did we ever presume all? I’d like to think Xers, as a generation, are too reality-based to think that we could), so understanding that we are out of touch with the younger generations will be a given–and you’ve done that just now. See? It’s all good.

    • Yesterdays Wine

      So which Boomers are you talking about? The ones who grew up dirt poor in Appalachia, the sons and daughters of blue collar workers, the suburban/urban elite who spawned more suburban and urban elite, or the ones who came up from the (then) truly mean streets of the big cities? The spacey, artsy bead maker or the engineer who helped design the Space Shuttle? Dolly Parton or Steve Jobs? Are you talking about the African American Boomers, the WASPS, or the white ethnic ones who still refer to themselves as Italian?Irish/Jewish/Polish and so forth? Are you talking about the ones who fought in the Vietnam War or those who fought against it? The half of the generation that’s Republican and conservative or the half that is Democratic and liberal? The ones who worked their tails off to educate your generation, or the ones who waited to have kids and educated, or are are educating, the Millennials? Are you talking about the Boomer born in January of ’46 or the one born in December of ’64? You talking about Obama or George W. Bush?

      It’s comical to read any characterization of any generation, one as large as mine, or one smaller like yours, or one bigger than either, the Millennials. I think when Boomers started there were 76 million of us. About the size of Germany now. Could you characterize Germany in a few sentences? A few photos? How accurate could you possibly be?

      I happen to have Millennials as children. Three of them. Two in college and a 12 year old. I’m not old or young to them, just their dad. They Tweet and use Facebook more than I do, but I use just about every graphics and WordPress program/app and other communications applications way better than they do. Aftr all, a white collar professional could scarcely not have a career and learn quie a bit in the last 35 years about using computers, now, could they? We like a lot of the same music – theirs, their mother’s (b. 1962) and mine. And that which we don’t share a like for, we tolerate in each other as the eccentricities of what are simply other human beings.

      As to your being called a youngster, wait till you’re in your late 50s and early 60s and you’re at a gathering, as I was over Christmas, with LOTS of 80 and 90-somethings and one of them says, “Oh you young people go off and do your own thing,” and then laughs because she’s used a “hip” expression. Those are things to laugh at, not to squirm about. People are pretty darned amusing.

      Much of what we hear about each of the generations is media-engendered. Their job is to go for the quick image, the sound bite, the easy take-down. A lot of what they portray is inaccurate and a good chunk of it is dead wrong.

      And like you and your cadre, we are pretty much products of the times in which we came up. Some of us pretty bad, mostly not so bad, a lot of good, lots of promises unfulfilled. Isn’t that the nature of existence? It’s even true of the so-called Greatest Generation. They fought a heroic war for freedom and came home and acted like some of the most paranoid people ever to walk the planet and they behaved like bigots to their fellow country men and women. And their maniacal conformity was painful to be subjected to. Go figure.

      My advice is to start looking at people as individuals and peer beyond the media charade that draws all of us in caricature.

  • David Worley

    This is an excellent post and a great reminder of the ‘shelf life’ of any idea or generation. That said, somehow the idea that there will be a ‘handing over of power’ doesn’t quite resonate with me. ‘Power’ presupposes both the existence of resources and ‘handing’ assumes an institution framework through which the first is generated.

    While I am in the Robert Wuthnow camp that sees the church not as dying but rather adjusting in unison with demographic changes, I do think the next generation of ‘church’ will look very differently than today’s. The church will have to grow more entrepreneurial with fewer resources. Therefore I anticipate that there will be more brilliant ideas like HFASS but with decisively less material support.

    I think the question of the ecclesial future is less about power transference and more about organic sustainability.

  • Leslie

    As someone on the verge of the big 5-0 (not quite a boomer I suppose) I can tell you there is hope…. your awareness in this very area will likely be what makes you… well, you. My son is a 25 yr-old church planter who does things in ways I could never imagine. Frankly I love it… I remember how he and I would have coffee and he would ask me how this or that is done and I would preface answers with… “take the wisdom and experience reflected in that approach, discard the rest, and then use all the passion, freshness, and creativity you have and go for it.” And he and his church do just that. Do I always get it? Nope. But it has it’s own flavour. And it’s awesome. And I love to worship with them too. They are inspiring, creative, and serving God and each other… beautiful. I might be wrong, but somehow I think that you will embrace it more than you think.

  • becky nielsen

    Been there – it’s a humbling experience. It’s also exciting, exasperating, fascinating. And my main goal at this time of life is to not disappear, just in case anyone wants to know what I think.
    Good post, Nadia! And interesting thoughtful comments.

  • Nes

    I think the worry for someone who is younger (mid-twenties) is that there seems to be no place for us in a number of churches. The feeling I, and some of those around me, have experienced (which is by no means universal) is something like this: we are now too old to be in Sunday school or youth group programs, but not considered old or wise enough to be a part of the leadership in any way, so we simply drift through spiritual life – go to service, go home. If we sit in on adult Bible study, we are not encouraged to talk, and our opinions are not valued when they do not agree with the old, wise, and often, more well-off. If there is no place for us, we do not feel at home and are more willing to leave altogether. Why be a part of something that has no use for us? God will love me whether or not I go to church, or so we’re told – so why bother the church part if it is only a strange mix of being simultaneously too young and too old to be wanted or needed? I don’t have an answer, really, just a concern. I wish we could find our place in this religious life. I can’t imagine those coming after us will have any more luck.

  • Oh God, this is my fear too. In some ways (due to going back to college along with my role in campus ministry) I would like to think that my day has not come yet…but in some ways I wonder if that particular sword of Damocles will fall on me soon before I know it. Now, to listen to some Nirvana lol

    Thank you for sharing this Nadia 🙂

  • Well, you are right, nobody wants to admit that they are old. And at 62, I’m not old….except that I do have AS (Aging Sucks). But don’t forget that we are just the second (or 2.5th) generation that has been able to have certain surgeries that allow us to function with some degree of comfort into older age. Friends just a few years older than me have had hips, knees, shoulders, heart valves, pace makers, stents, etc. done and they are up and around, still willing to lead, because they still have their minds and their experiences. 40 – 50 years ago, people like us were the old grandma in that extra bedroom who didn’t get out of bed.

    Then there is something else. They say that many young women don’t support equality for women because they have no personal knowledge of what it was like to be denied the right to even try to get into certain professions or jobs. Perhaps people your age have no memory of what it was like when the pastor did everything in the church, in the worship service, except play the organ.

    When I moved to this place and joined this church, in 1977, I mentioned to the pastor that we were just starting to have lay lectors in the church I came from. He said, “Ok, will you read on Sunday.” Not being one to not put my self where my mouth is, I said yes. I shook like a leaf, but I did it. And then more and more women read the lessons. The men were “too nervous” to do so for a number of years, but eventually they did. For a number of years, we’ve had lay worship assistants, lay worship leaders singing the liturgy, lay communion servers, and even presiders (with the blessing of the bishop if the pastor goes to synod convention, etc.). Lay people give the sermons when the pastor can’t be here. Lay people on the Worship Team pick the hymns and decide which of the many liturgies we will use for a season.

    And, yes, we baby boomers were joiners and leaders. We ran the Sunday School and the Vacation Bible School for our own kids and others. We helped the youth director because our kids were in the group and because it was open to outside youth.

    We included any other adults that wanted to be part of this leadership. But you know what? The older people seldom wanted to be part of any of the committees, except the building committee, and of course, WELCA, which is mostly women over 70. They seldom wanted to attend the Bible Studies and classes. And the younger people, now, are too busy, because the men and the women work, and the kids are in a zillion activities.

    And so now here we Boomers are: getting old. And we’ve tired. And yes, it be great if some body else younger would step forward. We’ve got just a few young families in our church who have taken on some leadership, but they are having their third babies or have a member in seminary.

    As for type of worship, well, give me a variety of hymns and songs, but not all one type, please. Something with depth of meaning and musical depth. And lets have some contemplative time during the service, so there must be quiet time, not music every minute.

  • D.E. Bishop

    I’m pretty much in the middle of the Boomers, born in 1953. Yesterday’s Wine was really correct. We are all so different. Those monolithic categories are simply so broad that they mean nothing.

    There is a thing that will always be the same, generation to generation. The older you are, the more you know. (Except the boneheads that exist in every generation.) I’m nearly 59, and I keep finding out that those smug and irritating old people were right about nearly everything they said. It still pisses me off! (BTW, I realize they were not smug and irritating, just knew more than me and I resented that. I still don’t like being told what to do, or think, regardless of how nicely it is put.)

    You might think of it as being similar to discovering that the more you study thealogy, or anything, the more you realize you don’t know.

    It’s a simple matter of being human. There are some things we simply cannot get until we get there. There is no shortcut, no way around it. I don’t expect people in younger generations to know some of the things I know. It can’t be helped. It’s normal. Those old ladies and men in their 70s and 80s still know things I don’t know, and I can’t make myself know it now. Sometimes I feel pretty frustrated.

    It’s like unraveling a long and Really Tightly Woven bit of cloth. There is no way to make it go faster. One thread at a time, one stitch at a time. A little bit is exposed, then another little bit, then another little bit . . . for every single day of your life.

    I don’t feel at all like a know-it-all, and I don’t want to be. There are things I’d like to tell you, but you couldn’t get it now any more than I could get it when I was 30 years old.

    What I see now is that I’ve had a lot of experiences, and I’ve made an incredibly long list of mistakes. OMG. No one of those experiences or mistakes is the sum of me. All of it is the sum of me. I ruefully shake my head often, at the things I’ve been so sure were true, times I was positive I was right. Sometimes I was, sometimes I wasn’t.

    The thing is, I really did the best I could. Sometimes my best was laughably bad. Oh well, that’s how it was, that’s how I was. One of the vast herd of human beings making her way in the world the best I could.

    It’s really a stumbling effort, filled with good intentions, stupidity, certainty, energy, meanness – everything. Wisdom comes much more slowly than any of the rest of it. And generosity of spirit.

    I don’t know what “old” is any more. Is 59 old? I don’t know. I don’t feel old, but then, I have no idea what 59 is supposed to feel like.

    One of the good things about my age is that I have learned some stuff over these years. (If not, then what the hell was I doing?! I really didn’t spend the entire time stoned.) Just in the past couple of years I’ve felt that I could really describe myself as “wise.” Whew. In my opinion, knowing I have a level of wisdom is not arrogant. It feels to me more like something that is really kind of hard to avoid, though clearly there are some who do.

    I’m excited about the generations following me. I see lots of really good-hearted people, working their asses off and wanting to do things right, wanting to be good people, parents, etc.

    I live in Minneapolis, and I see so many young parents (20s-30s) trying really hard, loving their children. What’s not to like?

    I know you find all the emphasis on Boomers frustrating. I would too if I were you. But remember, I didn’t ask to be born in 1953. I didn’t decide I wanted to be in a big and dominating generation. It just happened and now here I am, wondering how all that happened and how I got here.

  • D.E. Bishop

    BTW, Nadia, I really enjoy your blog and the people who comment here.

    I’m an ELCA pastor too. It’s a pretty good gig. I’m serving as a chaplain to crazy people now. Right up my alley. Plus, I don’t have to watch my swearing as closely with them.

  • I’m in an ELCA congregation (at the moment) myself.

    “Crazy people” is about all we have.

    Including your’s truly.

  • Stay out of music stores. When I passed a “Top Hits” display and didn’t recognize any of them, I knew I had arrived at that age that could not be called “young”.

  • Elizabeth

    When did ageism become acceptable? I didn’t think the church participation had a retirement age, or that “old” members became irrelevant.
    Like any unchallenged stereotype, the characterizations of us Boomers is accurate sometimes, and wildly off, sometimes.
    Do Boomers know they’re old? Oh, believe me, we do. The knees, the hips, the friends with cancer…. We know. But the mind and the spirit do not feel old. Tell my friends who meet to discuss politics and the arts, in Spanish, each week, that they’re old. Tell the group that works hard to help the homeless in our city, that they’re old. Tell the ones at our church who work at the food bank, and pack boxes of food and gifts for immigrant agricultural workers, that they’re old. Tell the book club that tackles relevant and interesting readings that they’re old. Oh, yes, after we pack food boxes, the back and the knees ache. But I don’t think any of us is irrelevant and should just retire to our knitting. The question is, do some Gen-X’ers and Millennials know they’re immature and just a little bit whiney?(okay, that was snarkey)

  • Lance

    Gen X-er and ELCA pastor myself. Nothing to add to your fine article, but appreciate what you said about our generation having part-time job complaining about baby-boomers. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard as the day I read The Onion Headline:
    “Long Awaited Baby-Boomer Die-Off Due to Start Soon”

  • Joseph A

    Next week I turn 50. My left knee’s been hurting for two days. My 10 year-old knows top 40 songs I don’t. I recognize less and less of the names on the list of Oscar winners. And I received an invite to my 30th reunion in 2010. Trust me. I know my age. And feel it.

    But I think boomers were truly the first generation to grow up completely without hardship. No Great Depressions, no world wars, indeed, no great sacrifice of any kind. Even events like Vietnam and 9/11, while shocking, only affected a small portion of the country directly, and then only for a short time. Some reexamined their lives; some paused for a few moments and went right back to them.

    At least, the didn’t have to deal with real adversity until 2008. So they really don’t know how to deal with it.

    They’re also getting old (like me, though I don’c count myself as a boomer because I only technically qualify) and frightened, especially in these turbulent times. Thing are changing and they are truly scared – hence the almost completely over 50 Tea Party movement.

    The next generation like you is changing our society and it’s not to their liking.

  • As someone who was around in that “circa 1994” with ya, I totally get this post. Especially when I teach current undergraduates.

    But in our defense, I’m going let yet another PSB song write a chapter of my life story…

    “We were never being boring
    We had too much time to find for ourselves
    And we were never being boring
    We dressed up and fought, then thought: “Make amends”
    And we were never being boring
    We were never being bored
    ‘Cause we were never being boring
    We were never being bored”