To Lament Or Praise The Millennial Generation?

On Thanksgiving Day I was sitting at the dinner table, trying to find room in my overstuffed stomach for the apple and pumpkin pies that our hostess was carving, when the subject turned to computers and technology. That led us to talk about a recent seminar sponsored by the NY Times where it was proposed that the millennial generation (those born between 1977 and 1997) is changing the way we get our news, read books, etc. THAT led us to discuss the differences between the baby boom generation (to which those of us at the dinner table all belong) and the millennial generation (who are, by and large, children of baby boomers). There was a HUGE difference of opinion on this subject. Some of us at the table felt that members of this younger generation are self-indulgent, materialistic, and want everything handed to them on a silver platter, NOW!

I have a much different view. As a member of the baby boom generation, I was a child of the 50’s and 60’s. I grew up during volatile times. I witnessed the assassinations of our beloved President Kennedy; his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy; and one of our country’s greatest icons and voices for peace, Martin Luther King. On the day that MLK was assassinated, I was a passenger on a bus on the southwest side of Chicago. As I rode that bus, rioting broke out all over the city, and by the time we reached Marquette Park mobs had massed in the park. Cars had been overturned and set on fire. People were fighting in the streets. One mob attacked our bus and started rocking it, trying to overturn it, but our driver just kept moving slowly forward with the doors locked until we safely cleared the park. I was two days shy of 16 years old and I was terrified, but I understood the rage and it reinforced my left-leaning tendencies. The Vietnam War loomed large in those days. Many of my friends were drafted and I was violently opposed to the war. We were the hippie generation – the flower power generation – a generation like no other before us, and we were going to change the world. But the truth is, we didn’t.

Gradually, I moved away from my alternative views and moved toward mainstream society. I jumped into corporate life, worked hard, bought a lot of ‘stuff’ and became a loyal Republican. Some would say I grew up. Many of my contemporaries said I sold out. Unfortunately, it was the path so many of our generation chose to take. We went from being the ultimate outcasts to the brainwashed multitude of corporate America, with goals no loftier than driving a luxury car and owning a nice home in the suburbs. Looking back, I have to agree that I sold out. What ever happened to all my high and lofty ideals? To that unbridled energy and conviction that we were going to change the world for the better? How on earth did I ever bring myself to vote for (much less adore) President Ronald Reagan, who, as governor of California, defined a hippie as someone who “dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”

Over the past year, I’ve spent a good deal of time talking to younger people. In many ways, they espouse the same views I had when I was younger, albeit in a quieter, more self-assured way. Many of them eschew conventional lifestyles. They realize what is truly important in life. They are pursuing what makes them joyful rather than selling out for corporate life and the attendant wealth it can bring them. So many of them already seem to understand what it took me 55 years to learn – that money cannot make you happy and, if your life is to have meaning, you must be true to yourself.

They are also “green.” Green politics is an ideology that places a high importance on ecological and environmentalist goals, as well as being concerned with issues of social justice, civil rights and nonviolence. Some Millennials are vegan; many are vegetarian. They wear natural fibers. They protest in the streets. They read books. They write. They become involved. They are intelligent. They are passionate about their ideals. And strangely, they are not intimidated by or mistrustful of anyone over the age of 30, as we were – they are always willing to talk openly to me about their thoughts and feelings.

I find great comfort in this younger generation. I hope they will be able to do what we couldn’t: resist the temptation of “all that glitters” and stay focused on moving our society back toward social and personal responsibility and a value system that once more makes sense. I’m rooting for them.

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