I have had multiple conversations with fellow Gen-Xers over the last few years about Millenials; some students, some peers. We seem to fall into two categories on this topic: Millenials are amazing, or, Millenials are the worst, get off my lawn!
I am disappointed with my demographic – GenXers with a lot of privilege. I am also disappointed with myself. Like many of my generation, we pushed at the boundaries of what was considered “good” work and meaningful life. We created new industries, new technologies, and new ways to connect and relate to each other. We didn’t start the post-modern crisis, but we were the first generation born into it, and it shapes the way we see the world, still. Just as many Boomers have difficulty seeing beyond a deconstructive viewpoint on any system (for fear that it will create dominance and control) we have a really hard time seeing beyond our entrenched, non-joiner-ist, post-modernism. As a result, many of us opted out. We opted out of public service, leadership, and the responsibility to push our society forward. So while we recognized how uninclusive 2nd Wave Feminism could be and rallied around pluralism, sexual freedom, and intersectionality, Roe v. Wade, one of the hardest fought battles of the generation before us, was eroded and degraded on our watch. This happened at the expense of those that fought to be included in the bigger tent of 3rd Wave Feminism: women of color, sex workers, poor women, gay women, and trans women. Those of us with privilege may have defied social norms, but we did not challenge laws. Not the way we should have. Far more of us should be in Congress, and in the Governors’ offices, and in the courts.
Every generation has its strengths and failings. But there has been a reckoning, and many of my cohort are failing the test. For example, instead of doing the painful business of interrogating our sexual experiences, we deride the #metoo movement and call our younger sisters and brothers weak. I’ve cringed to watch men of my generation act as apologists for peers who have been called out for sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. And I’ve been enraged by women my age who have done the same. I’ve confronted the callousness of some of these conversations, and I’ve seen others do so increasingly.
I have taught the youngest and oldest of the Millenial cohort. I have never seen evidence of the accusations lobbed at them by my increasingly curmudgeonly peers. They are not narcissistic, entitled, lazy, or hyper-sensitive. I’ve seen those traits in students my own age or older far more frequently. I’ve also sadly watched my cohort be inflexible, judgemental, and belittling towards our younger sisters and brothers. I’ve had to check those same traits in myself. As if we weren’t belittled, judged, and misunderstood by the generations before us! As if we never thought, “I won’t treat young people the way I’m being treated.” But judgment is a comfortable place to sit. It requires no effort; no movement. It also assumes that we have nothing to learn, which is absolutely ludicrous.
The world is changing faster than we could have imagined in our most dystopian nightmares. We grew up knowing that the world our parents created for us was supposed to be an idyllic utopia of social equality, but was instead fraught with injustice, instability, and massive contradictions. We puzzled our way through, and eventually made our own sense of the world, partially through creating new systems of connection (because the internet) and partially through our unwillingness to subject ourselves to the paradigms which with we were presented. Eventually, we flourished. We are parents, business owners, and creatives. We are good at horizontal connection because we found both pre- and postmodernist assumptions about hierarchy to be innately flawed.
Now we are middle-aged. Many of us are comfortable with the lives we have built and uncomfortable when younger people point out how we continue to uphold oppressive systems through our inaction. This is not a good look on us. We need to listen and learn from the generations who did not have to resolve the post-modern conflict but instead grew up in an increasingly interconnected and global world. They innately understand that we live or die together as a species, not just in our little groups. My students are so culturally and racially diverse that I doubt it even occurs to them to be frustrated that they have to compete with others of multiple races, cultures, and identities. It’s how the world is.
My students suffer from what I call generational hazing. We’ve all experienced it. When are you going to get married? What makes you think you can succeed in med school? You’re getting too old to have a baby. You’re too young to have a baby. What are you going to do with your life? What have you done with your life.
We’ve all experienced it, but we don’t have to continue it. We have an opportunity to be better.
Gen-X has a role to play. We can be translators and mediators between younger people, with whom we share some cultural and social experiences and older generations who are really struggling to understand the explosion of identities and terms for people they never knew existed. When a millennial calls out a baby boomer for not being intersectional enough in her feminism, we can do two things: opt out in frustration, or build a bridge between the world we reacted to, and the world we created.
I am as late to the plate as the vast majority of my demographic, but I’m willing to take up the challenge. Listen. Be a bridge. Lead from compassion instead of defensiveness. And take on the biggest challenge of aging with fervor – humility.