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Millennials and boomers in dialogue

Having a conversation with some millennials (born 1981-’96, now ages 27 to 41) recently, I was struck by their thoughts about baby boomers, of which I am one.

These people felt somewhat angry at our generation (born 1946-’64) for leaving them with such messes to solve – environmental destruction; political divide so great nothing gets done; economic hardships for so many; difficulty in buying a home; the minimum wage not being livable; exorbitant health care costs, (while we’re on Medicare and Social Security!); living and educational expenses increasing far faster than wages; the steady and visible rise of white nationalist populism – they feel boomers are not willing to look at these issues, and that we have stolen their (millennials’) futures.

Millennials make up about 25% of the U.S. population. They are also set up to inherit more than $68 trillion from baby boomer and early Gen X parents by the year 2030, setting them up to be the most wealthy generation in U.S. history. Not such bad futures.

“OK, boomer” is the latest catch phrase directed against us from younger folks. It represents a mocking, derisive tone, a catchall phrase for someone who is close-minded and resistant to change. It’s really more about an attitude than when we were born.

I remember thinking our parents’ generation was terribly outdated and way too interested in material things. We rebelled and focused on more meaningful (we thought) and relevant issues at hand.

We fought against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and for women’s rights, civil rights and the integration of schools, freer sexuality, and we had a music and cultural revolution. We came of age in the years of “Silent Spring” and passage of the Clean Air Act, which was possibly the founding of the modern environmental movement. Earth Day began in 1970. These were our causes.

It’s actually true that now, old people are more likely than young to boycott products for social purposes, invest in companies that take into account their environment and social impact (MIT Agelab studies, agelab.mit.edu), and of course volunteer for many environmental causes.

In today’s Longevity Economy (economy driven by living longer) and populations getting older, the outsized power of older adults as voters, consumers, investors and volunteers might just be the catalyst for a more sustainable society in the future.

I’m glad to see resistance from young people all over the globe protesting this unfortunate war. It’s good to see the millennials stepping up to try to save abortion rights, and certainly all of the racial equity protests happening over the past two years are encouraging. Younger people are always at the leading edge of change in cultural norms, race, immigration and sexual/gender equality. Issues have changed and the pandemic surely shows how something out of the blue can dramatically shift things for all of us, no matter the generation.

And I appreciate the willingness of these new friends to speak out, have a conversation with me and clarify their thoughts about us!

Understanding whether, and how, generations are different is vital to understand society. The balance between generations is constantly shifting as older people die and are replaced by younger ones. If younger generations truly do have different attitudes or behaviors than older generations, this will reshape society. Successive steps of humanity require a continuous renovation for societal progress. We need the constant injection of new thoughts, ideas and actions.

Perhaps this is a time for dialogue. Maybe it’s less a time of generational warfare than an opportunity to find common ground. Let’s get curious, get involved and have a talk with some millennials. It’s heartening.

Martha McClellan has lived in Durango since 1993 and has been an educator, consultant and writer. Reach her at mmm@bresnan.net.