A few weeks ago, I read an interesting column about the millennial generation penned by Ann Friedman. The upshot of the piece was that, like the generations of young people who came before them, it’s now time for millennials to take the blame for what Friedman termed “the downfall of society.”
As Friedman also observed, each generation of young people seems to have an uncanny knack for becoming the targets of the generations that came before them. There are exceptions, of course. Americans from my mother’s generation clawed their way out of the Great Depression, defeated two totalitarian regimes in World War II, and then followed up by rebuilding the defeated powers. They’ve been rightly labelled “The Greatest Generation.”
Having been born in 1942, I don’t fit neatly into that niche, nor do I fit like a glove with the post-war “baby boomers.” For lack of a better term, I guess people like me would be betwixt and betweeners. If I were to pigeon-hole myself, though, I’d most closely identify with the rebellious nature of the “baby boomers.”
Neither I nor the “baby boom’ generation wanted to be rebellious. We began our formative years, the 60’s, dreaming of Camelot and building a world animated by love. We were innocent and optimistic. By the time the decade was over, the innocence and optimism were gone. We were cynical and openly rebellious. There were good reasons for this. John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King were dead. We’d been ground up by the thousands in LBJ’s foreign policy sausage machine. America’s cities were on fire. Rather than respond to our grievances, our political leaders, especially Richard Nixon, lied so often that we coined the mantra, “Never trust anyone over thirty.”
The generation that followed, Gen Xers, were seen as slackers. They were a well-educated generation, but they were best known for their love of bad music and a “what’s in it for me” attitude. They shunned politics. In fact, they have the distinction of having the lowest voter participation rate of any American generation. They were so tuned out that Newsweek once described them as “the generation that dropped out without ever turning on the news or tuning in to the social issues around them.”
This brings me to millennials. A lot of people seem to believe that they’re taking America down the road to perdition. I don’t.
Nancy and I interact with lots of millennials when we go to Kansas City for our weekend getaways. While there’s no doubt that they view the world through a far different prism than us, we find them quite engaging to be around. They’re almost always far more liberal, politically and philosophically, than we are, but we’ve never had unpleasant conversations with them when we talk about politics, faith, economics, or social issues. Unlike Hillary Clinton and the D.N.C., for example, they don’t think being conservative makes their neighbor an enemy.
Most of the millennials I’ve interacted with have some very refreshing views. When I’m around people my own age, the conversations almost always revolve around colonoscopies, cataracts, or cholesterol, Millennials want to talk about living, life, and their place in this universe. I like that!
They’re less likely than the rest of us to get themselves weighed down by a mortgage, a fancy car, a boat, or some other expensive trinket. They’re also deeply concerned with social justice. In terms of faith, they’ve been labelled “nones” for what their detractors perceive as a deficit of belief. Their detractors are wrong. I’ve found that they don’t have problems with God. It’s the institutional trappings of religion that drive them crazy. You don’t suppose they may be on to something, do you?
The millennials I’ve been around seem to be putting out feelers. They’re not sure they can trust us to love them unconditionally. In his recent book, “The Road to Character,” New York Times columnist David Brooks described the way many millennials feel about their relationships with their parents (and by extension the rest of us) this way:
“Parental love becomes merit-based. It is not simply “I love you.” It is “I love you when you stay on my balance beam. I shower you with praise and care when you’re on my beam… Lurking in the shadows of merit-based love is the possibility that it may be withdrawn if the child disappoints. Parents would deny this, but the wolf of conditional love is lurking here. This shadowy presence of conditional love produces fear, the fear that there is no utterly safe love; there is no completely secure place where young people can be utterly honest and themselves.”
When all is said and done, I think millennials are just fine. The rest of us may not agree with their approach to life and that’s alright. They don’t need our approval; they just need our respect and unconditional love.