I live in something of a generational limbo. My birth and life experiences place me squarely with the Boomers. The 60s cultural upheaval — an unpopular war, home front riots and the bloody killing of national leaders — hovered over my school days. Fears of being drafted were driven by the very uncertain political landscape. Music seemed to be the net that drew us together, provided occasional escapes and now lingers in fond memories. Most of my friends were fawning (if not fainting) over the Beatles, Stones or the ever-present AM radio pop sounds. I was drawn to some of the fringe stuff, including a strange mix of FM radio with its new folk, acid rock and early country rock. Influences of delta blues and gospel filled my days, as well as of forerunners of punk and alt-whatever.
My growing up was also shaped by years in a conservative, if not strict fundamentalist, church family. In my later teen years I was drawn to the edges of the “Jesus People” movement. A summer working at a church connected camp led to more summers, and eventually I was “in the ministry.” For over 30 years, I have worked in ministry roles, now in a more moderate main-line setting, and I’ve focused on coordinating and mentoring young adults. It began when I was “one of them” and has continued through numerous life stages and ages. Now I am older than most of the parents of the people I work with. This work has afforded me something of a front row seat to observe the rapid shifts in young adult culture as I spend most of my waking hours with those in their 20s.
I’ve listened to employers, parents and others express frustrations over the problems of current young adults, including entitlement, self-esteem overload and generally not getting it. While I share many of the observations of traits that seem to mark the current young adult population, I generally have a somewhat different perspective.
The character of any young adult generation is determined more by cultural and social context than by masses of children rising up and proclaiming some new way of being. Face it: each generation is shaped by those who went before. The weight of cultural happenings, parenting styles, educational systems and new technologies are interpreted and accessed, or not, by values. And those values will filter into what kids learn, eventually manifesting in how they live. If one generation does not like what another is becoming (especially as they move into adulthood), they have waited too long to make a difference. Generations are shaped in the days of growing up. And generations reflect the values of those before them in a never-ending stream — not the lofty values spoken of when there’s an audience, but the lived the values that seep into lives and emerge in practice.
Those of my generation might benefit from understanding that not only has the world changed, it is on a path of ongoing rapid change. To prepare young people to enter the adult world in a similar way to how we did it is bankrupt. That single-track, career-first, corporate loyalty world is long gone and highly unlikely to return. We have allowed or encouraged success, accomplishment and affluence to guide our lives for decades. My life among young adults reveals a shifting of some of essential life values. Community and relationships are beginning to drive choices as much as climbing the corporate ladder.
Whether the world has become smaller or flatter will be debated long into the future. But by spending my days — and often long days — within a world of twentysomethings, I find hope in their efforts to live life more holistically and realistically driven by deeper values than societal pressures. The best hope is that we will all gain an understanding of the times and a commitment to make the best of life in the moments we share across generations.