As a college professor and employer of budding journalists, I spend a lot of time with Millennials. In fact, I spend more time with the rising generation than I do with the, well, falling generation to which I belong – the Boomers. And as I listen to my colleagues and students, I hear much that reminds of my own misspent youth and of my contemporaries when we were getting ready to charge out and change the world.
Millennials and Boomers are alike in many ways. Both generations are large: there are so many of us that we developed a stronger identity and culture than most generational cohorts do. Both generations see themselves as both the products and the agents of change. The Boomers grew up during the Civil Rights and the feminist revolution; we were forced to question the guiding assumptions of American society and culture as part of figuring out who we were and what we wanted to do with our lives. Millennials have similar problems; the old assumptions and conventions are falling apart, and Millennials need to think through what it means to live in a much more ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse societies than past generations in the United States remember.
Both generations also came of age in times of economic pain; the inflation and high unemployment of the 1970s came as a very unwelcome shock to Baby Boomers who passed their childhood and adolescence in one of America’s longest periods of prosperity. Millennials have been there too; the two longest back to back economic expansions in American history came to a juddering halt with the 2008 financial crisis; Millennials’ introduction to the real world has been harsh.
There are other similarities between the generations. Both generations grew up at a time of social change, turmoil and global and national unrest, and both generations were seen as less conventionally religious than their parents. Both generations grew up in the shadows of unpopular wars; both generations felt strongly called to embrace careers dealing with social injustice, environmental crises, and global development. Neither generation put a high priority on the institutional church.
That last is one of the places where I think we Boomers went wrong. Most of us (at least of that part of the generation that was interested in public service) ended up putting our energy into anti-poverty programs, human rights NGOs, environmental organizations, and so on. All of these are much stronger now than when my generation first got involved with them. The enormous growth of the NGO sector both in the United States and abroad has been one of the hallmarks of the Boomers’ engagement with the world.
Looking back, I think we got it wrong. In our eagerness to change the world, and to embrace the tumult and challenge of our times, we overlooked the most important NGO of all: the Church of Christ.
The greatest paradox of the last fifty years in the United States has been the contrast between the enormous growth of the non-profit sector and the collapse in the social capital of poor and middle class American communities. We have more organizations with more money working to solve more social problems than ever before – and more children are growing up in broken homes, more adults are disconnected from communities of fellowship and solidarity, more drugs are wreaking greater havoc in more families and more individual lives than ever before, and more people are cut off from full participation in social life than before my generation, with its great ambitions to change and improve the world, came on the scene.
As a generation, I think we made a simple but costly mistake. We were the builders who cast aside the stone that turns out to be the cornerstone of the whole building. We never really understood, at least most of us didn’t, that strong local neighborhood church communities provide the necessary structure for a just and progressive society
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