Who made Millennials? Were they a mistaken creation of a mad scientist in a secret laboratory or were they the last day leftovers of a liquidation sale? If you listen to people like New York Times Op-ed columnist Bret Stephens, you might think that they’re a dangerous mutation of the human species. But I’m pretty sure that Boomers gave birth to Millennials and that educators, youth workers, and camp counselors helped to raise them. Any critique of Millennials must also include some scrutiny of their source – Baby Boomers.
Many Boomers lived the good life. Their post-high school options into adulthood were linear, stable, and more defined: marriage, children, a new home, the next promotion at work, and a continuous climb up the ladder of achievement until retirement. The “golden watch” or handsome set of luggage that many received at retirement symbolized that Boomers could reclaim their time and be adventurous. No more working on someone else’s clock at a job that held scant meaning.
True, some Boomers started out as protesters against the establishment but most morphed into a dominant hierarchy. In pursuit of success, we also left Millennials with severely threatening climate change, problematic food sourcing issues, and a set of expectations that were ill-suited for a disruptive world. We spent our children’s future during decades of an unusually stable time.
Will more Millennials purchase homes? Maybe, or perhaps they’ll be paying off exorbitant college debt instead. A job for life? How can Millennials know what they want to do for even a decade when the job that they have three years from now doesn’t yet exist? An affordable company health care plan, a defined benefit pension plan, and a decent monthly Social Security payment – these Boomer perks have been replaced by financial, food, and job insecurity for many Millennials.
Stephens does have a point in the excess of grievance that some Millennials express. And on some campuses, academic freedom has been hijacked by a collaboration of students, faculty, and administration who are self-anointed thought police. But how many Millennials have served in the military after 9/11, taught in Teach for America, and developed digital tools for constructive and creative purposes? If Boomers can create new off-ramps from paid full-time work, why can’t Millennials create new pathways into adulthood that fit who they are instead of trying to remake them in a Boomer image?
In fact, as a Gen Xer, Stephens, and open-minded Boomers, can be generational bridge builders instead of bridge burners. Gen Xers, unfairly labeled and often overlooked, can recall a less digitally immersive time and they’re also digitally savvy. They are increasingly in positions of influence and can open more mutual empathy between Boomers and Millennials. We can have constructive conversations about the life experiences that informed who we are, and the ongoing transformations that we’re experiencing in different ways.
Honest conversation, more curiosity, and less judgment between Boomers and Millennials are possible. Arming ourselves with these attributes instead of reflexive defensiveness is a much healthier way to bridge differences across all generations.