It happened again this week. I posted an article that merited reading and one of my younger friends observed, “The observation that the problem the article cites is even more common among millennials struck me as an unnecessary jab in the context of the larger point made by the article.”
She was right, of course, and I acknowledged it immediately. “You’re absolutely right. It was gratuitous and Boomers have enough problems of their own without picking on other generations.” But I was troubled by just how common that kind of observation is and how often it figures as the centerpiece of still others. It also got me thinking about the larger range of challenges that we face around intergenerational relationships.
We have the good fortune of living in a world in which an ever-greater number of generations share the world at the same time. Advances in nutrition and medical care have increased our life expectancy. But what we have failed to do is to begin re-thinking the way in which we think about mentoring, aging, and sharing the tasks that lie ahead of us in creating a stronger, healthier society.
One thing that we need to do is to stop labeling one another.
To be sure, changing demographics and the statistics that capture birth rates, levels of academic and vocational preparation, earning power, and other differences can be helpful in planning for the future. The fiscal commitments that we make, for example, need to be weighed against the earning power of generations that will continue to bear the burden of decisions made now.
What I have in mind is the labeling that is so often categorical, sweeping, inaccurate, and misleading. Suggesting, for example that millennials are “lazy,” “they don’t read,” or “they lack a commitment to the well-being of others” is quite simply unfair. The variables that shape the way in which each new generation responds to the demands of adult life mean that often the patterns don’t reflect the activity of an older generation, but that hardly means that a younger generation lacks commitments to activity that makes for a healthier society. What it often means is that a younger generation is “finding its own way.” It may also mean that some of the approaches that an older generation found useful or effective are no longer workable or relevant.
Patient listening and observation are in order if we hope to work together and avoid building generational barriers that language of this kind erects.
The differences that do exist between generations – the differences in kinds of experience and perspective – are an asset and they should be treated as such. In a complex and fast-moving environment, a world where multiple generations share in problem-solving can strengthen our efforts to address the challenges that lie ahead of us. But if each generation holds onto power and influence as long as possible, only grudgingly welcoming younger generations at some later date, the advantage of intergenerational wisdom will be squandered.
Third, we need to create structures that eliminate needlessly pedantic obstacles to participation and foster the kind of mentoring that moves people seamlessly from preparation to participation.
In my own field, for example, seminarians are often forced to endure what I describe as “ecclesiastical hazing” for years before they are approved for ordination. As an educator and priest I appreciate and value rigorous preparation. I also know that vocational readiness involves more than “getting a degree.”
But the amount of time that candidates for ordination wait to learn whether or not they will be ordained and the lack of specificity in the guidance or criticism that well-equipped candidates often receive betrays other forces at work than a desire to mentor. Often, sadly, self-serving gatekeeping is what is really at stake.
Fourth, we need to begin thinking about what living longer really means for the way in which we deploy the skills and experience of people who are older.
Life-expectancy has advanced dramatically, the way that we think about aging has changed very little. Although people now regularly live into their eighties, the average retirement age still lingers in the early to mid-sixties and the opportunities for active participation diminish in a commensurate fashion. Re-thinking retirement and aging will be important, not just for older generations that are now alive, but for future generations as well, because – one can hope – those generations will enjoy even longer lives.
Fifth, (an important amendment) we also need to begin rethinking how we talk about younger adults.
Which brings me back to the point that I made initially.
As a young army officer, Winston Churchill found himself at odds with senior officers in the military for some of the articles that he wrote considering a military campaign. The criticism revolved largely around his supposed youth and inexperience. Churchill shot back, “To such I will reply that if what is written is false or foolish neither age nor experience should fortify it; and if it is true, it needs no such support.”
He was right then and now.