I had a great conversation this past weekend with my son Clarke. We were talking about the differences between ‘his generation’ and ‘my generation’ (the Boomers), and he shared a perspective I thought was extraordinary and which made me realize our two age groups advocate two very different interpretations of reality.
He believes that one of the biggest problems his generation faces is themselves—because they have grown up in a time in which they have been constantly bombarded with the marketing machine’s message that the world is custom-made to fulfill whatever you want. He and his peers have grown up in an era of customized everything—from their local Starbucks experience to designing their desktop and personalizing their clothing to match current fads and their own tastes. The message is always, “How do you want it to be?”. This proliferation of choices and possibilities is wonderful and convenient (and obviously good for businesses and marketers). But is it good to believe that your personal whims and preferences should be the organizing principle for your life?
His view (which I think is accurate) is that our generation grew up appreciating that we needed to change, adapt, compromise or do whatever was necessary to ‘make it’ in the world. We did not harbor any illusions: to make a living, let alone succeed, we needed to learn how the world works and do what we needed to achieve our goals. I could see that, from his perspective, the Boomers have lived in a ‘make it what we want’ relationship to reality and that our post-war generation has pretty much written the ‘way it is’ for the past half-century. Our children are confronted with the feeling that ‘that-is-one-tough-act-to-follow’: small wonder they gravitate towards a kind of nihilism or resignation that everything has already been done ‘for them’, the world is organized around them, and their biggest challenge is to figure out what they want. This is generally the case among his peers. A frightening context to live in.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to appreciate the ‘generation gap’ that pervades our society today. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. I asked, “Clarke, are you saying that most of your peers actually believe they can ‘buy’ happiness or get what they want at the mall?” His view, which he admitted was a bit cynical, was basically—yes! If they don’t like something, whether a product or a person, they just ‘switch’ to another—a kind of sad extension of the postmodern notion that everything is interchangeable, counterfeit and doesn’t mean much anyway.
As we pressed forward through the conversation we noted some other interesting differences in how our ‘world occurs’ for us. I will be highlighting some of these in future blogs, but what was most encouraging and inspiring in the conversation was Clarke’s objectivity about his own generation and his sense of responsibility and concern for the world he is inheriting.
Surprisingly, he pointed to the crucial importance of his generation’s relationship with their parents from two perspectives:
- The potentially unrealistic expectation to excel and succeed (the ‘anything and everything is possible’ message)
- A deep need and desire to connect, learn from and collaborate with older people.
At one point, he pointed to the ‘labeling’ of generations—Generation X, GenY, Gen C and so forth—as something that is laid on them by the media pundits and older people and which is not how they relate to or see themselves. He suggested his peers are hungry for some sense of stability. He went on to add, “Except for the computer and robotics folks, most of us are looking to the past for answers and structures that make sense that we can count on. We are looking for more absolutes, morals and rules that can guide us.”
Too much freedom and choice is not always a good thing. At least, not until we learn and know who we are.