Throughout all of history, mankind has encountered pivotal epochs which have defined generations not simply by the breakdown of age groups, but instead by the drastic events and changes that shifted the overall culture of a society. In today’s world we understand our generations as X,Y, and Z – a.k.a. “Millennials.” Unfortunately this simple method of dividing generations, by ranges of birth years, doesn’t give us a very in-depth understanding of the fundamental changes and differences that we witness from generation to generation.
Individually, we are all influenced by our upbringing and the values passed on to us. In our primitive absence of wisdom and understanding the world around us in our early years, the world is constantly making an effort to influence us toward adapting its values and beliefs. Parents that want the best for their children pass on their most important values and wisdom in hopes that it will plant a seed in them that will continue to grow throughout their children’s lives. Along the pathway we walk in life, personal trials and experiences will test those values in all of us. Some of those values will become foundations personally solidified within us, while others will be carried away with the wind and abandoned if we personally find no value in them.
The large-scale disturbances and changes that a society encounters from generation to generation will not only change the way people function in everyday life, but it will also mark the moments that challenge the values of previous generations. In today’s world, I see a generation that has largely rejected the values of the previous generation. It’s difficult to say what the specific epoch events were that separated these two recent generations, but much of it can be pointed to the three following events:
- The Informational Revolution that the internet has enabled, and the availability of information.
- The September 11th attacks on the United States and the wartime state we’ve been under since then.
- The 2008 Economic Crash.
I will explain each of these in detail below:
1. The Informational Revolution has delivered the availability of information to society at such a profound level. Gone are the days of a culture created by the most influential news, entertainment, and other centralized media. Rather than an overall hegemonic culture from the top-down, society in relation to the internet medium has separated into groups and people have formed more tribal affiliations based on ideas and beliefs. There is no longer the influential direction to assimilate into the older-established spheres of influence. In the Information Revolution individuals can easily connect with groups across the world based on the personal interests, beliefs, and views that they relate to. Although this has positively expanded our horizons, it has also created a generation of people seeking their own paths that diverge from traditional ways.
2. The September 11th attacks and continued wars in the middle east have had a demoralizing effect on Americans. Our current generation doesn’t live under the assumed safety net as was experienced during peacetime, and there is the constant threat of terrorism and rumors of war. This environment has the effect of creating a feeling of an uncertain future and an attitude of worry toward that uncertainty. Numerous privacy rights and personal liberties that were once fundamental to our society have been stripped away and eroded by legislation and government. Many young people have become disgruntled, apathetic, and disengaged with politics and government. Those who are engaged find it difficult to do so in a positive and constructive way due to the structural disconnect from the top-down.
3. The effects of the 2008 Economic crash are still felt to this day. Investors, savers, and people in the finance realm deal with great uncertainty under a volatile economy and a Federal Reserve that holds the strings in an attempt to control it by interest rates. College graduates are entering the workforce only to find that the availability of decent-paying jobs with retirement and benefits have now drastically become scarce. The dreams of home ownership and building a well-established financial life are fading as more young people opt for living paycheck-to-paycheck, renting, and trying to enjoy life under less consumer-oriented means.
These three events – Informational Revolution, Post September 11th Wartime, and the 2008 Economy Crash have disrupted the continuing functionality of the American way of life that worked in the generation before it. It’s apparent under the new strains and conditions that our society now lives under, the generation maturing today is seeking something different in order to adapt to the world they live in.
This creates what I will call the “Folkway Chasm.” It is the division between this generation and the generation before it. The values, traditions, and culture that worked for the previous generation doesn’t appeal to the generation today. The older generation asks “Where are the young people to continue us and carry our torch?” and struggle to understand today’s youth. The chasm creates this gap that disrupts and divides what defines these two generations.
The unfortunate reality is that it is essential for us, as individuals and as a society, to learn from history. It’s important to absorb and carry on the traditions and wisdoms that were created before us that do retain beneficial values and meaning to humanity. To do so is to recognize that humanity repeats its mistakes throughout history, and we have much to learn from our elders. The implied notion that today’s generation so uniquely transcends the past that it has no need for its wisdom is just plain ignorant. Rather than completely abandon all previous traditions, customs, and morals, we must learn to refresh them under a new functional light of present-day society. Yes, we have our own generation to build and lead, but we should also humble ourselves to understand the past.
It’s important to understand the generational differences and recognize the current strains and conditions that today’s generation lives under. We must acknowledge how these new strains and conditions affect the attitudes of young people today. Then we must translate the previous wisdom of yesteryear into the new conditions of today. The millennial generation is often called “Generation ‘WHY’,” alluding to the fact that the Millennials question everything. It’s not enough to simply adopt tradition for the sake of tradition – millennials need to understand its importance first. As society seeks its identity, it would be beneficial for us to examine the values and traditions of our elders and to refresh the ones that we need most today in a way that young people can relate to and see why it has value.
My hope is that the lessons of the past aren’t forgotten, and that as we encounter the trials and uncertainty of today we don’t abandon the wisdom of yesterday.