They Call It Adulting: Choosing to Bridge the Generation Gap
“I want to beg all you who constitute the ‘older generation’ to overlook our shortcomings and to appreciate our virtues. [...] We hold the infinite possibilities of the myriads of new inventions within our grasp. We are in touch with the whole universe. [...] Instead of helping us work out our problems with constructive, sympathetic thinking and acting, you have muddled them for us more hopelessly with destructive public condemnation and denunciation.”
-Ellen Welles Page
The above was written in 1922, excerpted from an article entitled “A Flapper’s Appeal to Parents.” But doesn’t it seem eerily familiar? It might as well be called “A Millennial’s Appeal to Society.”
Like the young people of the 1920s, millennials are navigating their early years while enduring a fair share of criticism. Whenever I see the word, with no consideration of context, I hear it in my head in a certain way: a snarky “muh-LEN-eals.” This, I’m sure, is indicative of the things I’ve read and conversations I’ve had about this generation. The claims are tired; we all know them. Entitled. Lazy. Narcissistic. (And of course, addicted to their technology.) Flappers were of great concern in their day as well, widely stereotyped and portrayed in a negative light. And they, too, were living in a rapidly changing world. The similarities are striking.
Really, previous generations viewing current ones with side-eyed skepticism is--as the Boomers would say--as old as the hills. This is the human tendency, the default. It’s happened throughout all of history. And of course there’s a tendency in the other direction: C.S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery,” which describes our inclination to see newer things as inherently better. Hence, young people often dismiss older people as out of touch. And round and round it goes.
So is there any use talking about it? Can we bridge the gap, or was Ms. Page just a hopeless dreamer?
I’m part of a book club with some ladies on my street. They’re all age 50 or above, kids long out of the house. And then there’s me, in my early 30s, my first baby often perched on my lap as we discuss our most recent read. Our last one was a nonfiction book about gratitude, and as we pondered some things in the “parenting” chapter, the discussion evolved into a conversation about millennials.
Things became lively when one woman chimed in: “You know they have a word for doing, sort of, normal life tasks? They call it adulting.” I immediately perked up. Just hours ago I’d purchased a last-minute Christmas gift for my sister-in-law: a cozy “I can’t adult today” hoodie. I wondered what they’d have to say about this ubiquitous verb of our generation. Another woman added: “Yes! My daughter and her roommate made an 'adulting' to-do list.” And another: “My daughter was nervous to make a doctor’s appointment! She’s 25!”
As the only millennial in the room, I was tempted to get defensive, or at least vocal. Because even as an older millennial, I totally get it. I don’t think I’ve ever used the hashtag, but there’ve been times, even in recent years, when I’ve semi-consciously thought, “Where are all the adults around here?” only to remember, “Oh, it’s me... I’m the adult.”
So what could I say to defend us? We’re the most highly educated generation, and spending more years in school means delaying traditional “adult” skills and activities. We’re also marrying and starting families later, which facilitates that same delay. And of course, there’s the Internet and the sense of overwhelm it provokes. Like the ghosts in the Portlandia skit so brilliantly demonstrate, we’re inundated with information to the point where we’re afraid to do anything, lest we not do it perfectly. I was ready to jump in and let them know how life was for us to help explain why we’ve come up with such a word.
But as I listened, I soon realized I had no reason to get defensive. My middle-aged neighbors were simply sharing their observations and questions--no judgment or criticism to be found. They soon moved to reflection on their own generation, describing “helicopter parenting” and how maybe they gave too much to their kids. I weighed in here and there, but mostly I sat and listened, content and refreshed beyond words.
My mom and I were talking recently about a discussion she had with her Bible study group. She explained they’d gotten to talking about how different generations’ experiences impact their worldviews. For example, she said, growing up in the 30s meant experiencing famine and poverty, and thus a worldview where saving things and being resourceful was of utmost importance. My mom beamed (over the phone) as she relayed these things to me. “It’s just so helpful,” she said. “There’s more understanding of people and where they might be coming from.”
It’s so true. The tendencies of generations derive from their experiences. Generations are the way they are because of the context in which they’ve grown up. And if a generation has a questionable quality, it’s not like they all got together and planned it: they’re that way because something in the culture has helped shape it so.
And I like what my mom said: more understanding. How might we get there?
Don’t belong to or identify with the millennial generation? I’d say this: surely it’s not hard to join the chorus of criticisms of the muh-LEN-eals. Alternatively, you could take your cue from the ladies of 111th street. Hang out with one; be curious about us and our weird words; ask questions, talk, reflect. And fellow millennials, there’s something here for us, too. Let’s fight the inertia of chronological snobbery and remember that new isn’t always better. Let’s quell the urge to get defensive; it’s often unnecessary and rarely helpful. And let’s apply this same spirit of curiosity and generosity, and when we’re tempted to criticize or dismiss an older (or younger) generation, let’s not. More understanding.
It’s wise counsel for any of us to immerse ourselves in the worlds of non-peers. I love meeting monthly with my little book club, even though I’m quite out of place age-wise. I could write a book about the things I learned from the 7th and 8th graders I used to spend time with every day. I no longer teach, but sometimes my husband and I hang out with our neighbor kids, a boy and a girl both in fifth grade, just chatting in the street or in our front yard. More understanding.
We don’t want to be labeled or criticized; we don’t even want to be analyzed. What we want is to be heard, helped, and understood. And I’m not just talking about millennials. That’s what we all want, regardless of the year we were born.
I think Ms. Page speaks for anyone, of any generation, when at the end of her article she pleads:
“Give us confidence - not distrust. Give us practical aid and advice - not criticism. Be patient when we make mistakes. Study us. Make us realize that you respect us as fellow human beings. Believe in us, that we may learn to believe in ourselves, in humanity, in God.”