We have a tendency to name and classify entire generations of people. I’m not sure whether this trend was started by social scientists or journalists but at least during the twentieth century and beyond we have created artificial designations meant to describe the general characteristics of groups of people born within certain eras. Thus we have the men and women born and raised during the twenties and thirties who became “the greatest generation” due mostly to the contributions that they made during World War II. Then came my group, often known as the baby boomers, because “the greatest generation” lacked effective birth control methods and had one child after another, creating one of the largest increases in population in the history of the world. Of course modern medicine allowed more of us to stay healthy after we were born as well so we have tended to hang around longer than our ancestors. We boomers have gotten a bad rap for most of our lives. We annoyed our parents with our rebellious spirits and our own children who became Generation X often struggle to understand what makes us tick. Currently we are in the age of the millennials who are vastly different from any group that has come before them. They are idealistic even beyond the dreams of those of us who once ran with the hippies and anti-war crowd.
Of course anyone with an ounce of common sense understands that it is all but impossible to paint an entire generation with a broad stroke and be entirely accurate. Each of us is a product of our genetics, our home environment and the happenings of the wider world. Had there been no World War II “the greatest generation” might never have earned that designation. They were hard working men and women for sure and mostly had good hearts and pure intentions but they were often unconcerned with injustices that did not directly affect them. They tended to go about the business of daily living without much notice of problems with race or poverty. It was the role of their children to challenge their thinking and ask them to consider questions of fairness, race and feminism. Their rowdy kids demanded that they begin to question the status quo.
To be fair my parents’ generation somehow raised me and my contemporaries to be openly critical and defiant. We didn’t just suddenly hatch out of an egg with our revolutionary ideas. Our elders had insisted that we be educated far better than they had been. We were exposed to ideas that demanded creative thinking and it was our parents who encouraged us to take full advantage of the knowledge that we acquired. The result was that we were a bold generation that drew upon the theories of intellectuals and realized that we had voices that deserved to be heard. In some cases our youthful enthusiasm was chaotic but on the whole it began to change the world in ways that were sometimes frightening and confusing to many of the old guard who saw our impertinence as a slap in the face.
Still we did not march in unison as a group. Some among us maintained a more conservative approach to life just as some of our parents were even more liberal than we were. While changes were affected there were still tendencies to pick and choose past traditions that needed to be cherished. Each of us was a bit different while we clung to our individual identities.
I never liked the label of Generation X that was attributed to our children. It seemed so nondescript, as though this group had little to distinguish them other than the dates within which they were born. They enjoyed fairly peaceful childhoods filled with the creation of one innovation after another that we now take for granted. There was a kind of happiness and rainbows feeling during their era. They did not worry about the possibility of being sent to a war. The world appeared to be calm but that was little more than an illusion. Already there were stirrings in the Middle East that would come to haunt all of us. The economy had a tendency to slide up and down at inopportune times that sometimes left them without work. They were a bright and well educated generation, more progressive even than the boomers. They attended church less frequently and had fairly liberal ideas about sexuality and the role of women. Their children became known as the millennials.
Most millennials have little understanding of the impact of events in the twentieth century other than what they have learned in history books. The grainy black and white photos of mid-century America seem ancient and quaint to them. They can’t quite fathom what it was like to watch the civil rights movement unfold or participate in the Cold War with Russia. They have lived with a twenty four hour news cycle that brings stories of war and terrorism into their living rooms on a continual basis. They are one of the best educated groups in history but often have difficulty finding jobs. Unlike the boomers who were usually out on their own by the time they were twenty one years old, the millennials often stay within the family unit well past the middle of their twenties, sometimes out of necessity because they have been unable to secure work. They are less likely to marry at a young age if at all. They earnestly crusade for justice and equality, often spending time working in non-profits for free before launching careers. Many of them are more dedicated to the pursuit of science than religion. They often view the world from a very different vantage point than their grandparents and great grandparents whom they see as being out of touch with the realities of the new age.
The truth is that we tend to progress and change with each new generation mostly in concert with events and inventions that define how we see the world. Our perceptions are determined by the totality of our experiences. We show general characteristics based on the things that we endure as a society and our individuality comes from the less public aspects of our personal relationships. Truth be told it is our very humanity that affects our worldview. Television and social media have the power to impact numbers of us in ways that were unimaginable before the dawn of the twentieth century but we still react to more regional influences as well. Someone born in the nineteen forties in rural Texas will be different from someone who lived in a large eastern city at the same time. It is the amalgam of all that we see and hear and do that ultimately defines each of us, not a particular label. It is the nature of mankind to slowly evolve but often that process is an erratic curve rather than a smooth line.
Perhaps it would be best if we were to engage in conversations between the generations. Our table needs to be round and inclusive and open to a place for everyone. We need to eschew labels and stereotypes and learn to honor and respect the power of the journeys that each of us have taken. We are who we are not so much because we were born in a certain time frame but because we have lived. It is impossible to move from one day to the next over a lifetime without growing and changing in some way. Whether we accept it or not age and group memberships matter less than our common desire to improve our society with each passing generation. Our hope is to leave the world a bit better than it was when we first entered it. That is a worthy goal and one which we all can support.