May 9, 2013

Pro Tips From Our Grandparents: Using Generational Lessons to Shape the US Future

Despite the overwhelming barrage of terrible things happening in our world, I have always maintained the belief there is enough compassion and brilliance among the human race that can out-maneuver the most egregious atrocities.

Ok, ok... so that might be a bit idealistic, but if I didn't think there was an ounce or two of legitimacy towards that belief, I would have let it go years ago. 

Every generation is born into different circumstances, each of which have provided moments of trial and poignancy. My grandparents' generation is frequently referred to as "the greatest generation" in the US -- having come of age during the Great Depression only having to immediately fight in World War II afterwards. Though the Baby Boomers were blessed with being born into America's golden age, they were the generation who cried out for civil rights, gender equality, and protested against the Vietnam war. 

Generation X rose during the  Clinton years and pre-internet and housing bubbles and watched as environmental and new international crises emerged. As a Millenial, my generation is old enough to remember September 11 and its implications, but were young enough to acquire a different perspective on how the events and crisis that followed impacted our country and culture. Certain character traits start to emerge once you remove the events and begin to understand how generations respond and grow from the circumstances. 

Last month, I attended Creative Mornings in Seattle. It's a monthly lecture series with a single topic unifying chapters around the globe, each with a different speaker and perspective. April's topic was The Future and August de los Reyes gave a fascinating talk on how understanding the future can lead to smarter design decisions today. What better way to understand the future, he argued, than to have a strong understanding of patterns from the past. (Have 35 minutes? I strongly recommend watching it).

From the American perspective, it's easy to recognize a pattern of four distinct life cycles that make up an entire lifetime, there has even been a theory developed around the it. According to the Strauss-Howe generational theory, the four cycles are:

1. High
2. Awakening
3. Unraveling
4. Crisis

Since the high in the 1950s, American society has traveled through an awakening period where institutions and cultural norms were questioned (1960s-70s), followed by unraveling driven by extraordinary economic booms/busts, new environmental concerns and international turmoil (1980s-90s), and crisis (post 9/11 - now). At this rate, my generation is set to hit the high and prime of our nation's prosperity in the middle of our lives. 

Each of the cycles contain personality profiles that are most often associated as a result of a society's circumstances.

De los Reyes commented that the Millenial generation places a high value on community and social space, whereas the Generation X-ers place a strong focus on preserving the individual. Neither is better or worse than the other, it's just a matter of understanding how the two can work together to mitigate long term impacts of the crisis.

As Claire Thompson puts it in an article shared by one of my [brilliant] friends, 
"We’re already the harbingers of a profound demographic shift in this country; our children will be the ones who fully flesh out this new, diverse, interconnected America (in 2011, for the first time, children born to people of color made up more than half of U.S. births). Included in our necessarily more pluralistic, progressive, tolerant worldview is an acute awareness of sustainability and the need to find a place for it in a political system that increasingly does not reflect our changing values."
Our society is at an interesting threshold right now, the recession has crippled the job market. The majority of the freshly-trained and educated Millenial generation is now thrilled to land a low-skill minmum wage job in order to slowly hack away at their (re: our) massive load of student debt. Meanwhile, many in Generation X are figuring out how to support aging parents while trying not to drown in mortgage woes. The retiring Baby Boomers who were once depending on decent pensions are now looking at the reality of not being able to afford retirement while relying on a social security check too small to stretch very far.

We are evidently in a crisis phase, but looking in the past, we've been here before. Sure the details were a little different in the 1930s compared to today, but the general themes remain consistent: environmental concerns, alarmingly low bank account balances, international upheaval  and a general lack of confidence in many of our country's institutions.

Of course I'm selfishly looking forward to the day when my fellow 20-somethings and I can have a legitimate savings account. But I can't help but be encouraged by subtle societal shifts that are placing stronger emphasis on community, health and wellness, minimizing environmental impact, and a new international dialogue.**

Again, Ms. Thompson: 
That’s why it looks like we’re [Millenials] flailing (and make no mistake: We are flailing, when it comes to achieving any semblance of financial security). We have huge potential and desire to innovate, but we also recognize that we can’t fulfill that potential without same basic safety nets. Things like health insurance. Some level of student debt forgiveness. Infrastructure that supports the kind of smaller-footprint, sustainable lifestyles we’re already creating for ourselves: compact housing in vibrant, walkable communities; functioning public transportation; streetscapes that prioritize cyclist and pedestrians over cars, urban gardens and farmers markets; regulatory room for sharing economies to thrive. -(Seriously, read this article. Especially if you're a flailing 20-something).
We've been in crisis before, yes. And we've made it out ok. We'll make it out just fine again. Our country won't look the same, but I'm confident the changes will be for the best.

**Admittedly, the trends I notice living in Seattle are more widespread and encouraged... America is a massive country, and it's going to take a lot more collective energy to see tangible changes.


May 1, 2013

Quenching the Neighbor's Thirst

After a week of sun, the typical Seattle grey returned to usher in the weekend. The cool weather didn't stop a group of friends and I from celebrating Neighbor Day by setting up a free lemonade stand on the corner of Broadway and John St. in Capitol Hill.

Neighbor Day is designed to do exactly what the name implies -- connect with the people who live the closest to where you live. The Neighbor Day campaign was spearheaded by, a magazine and online community inspired by good things worldwide whose mission is to "convene, empower and connect all of those who give a damn." 

Offered complete freedom to concept and plan the event, I was easily charmed by the sunshine and warmth of the prior week, so a free lemonade stand seemed like the best way to celebrate spring and meet some neighbors.

My neighbors are made up of a menagerie of hipsters, potheads, yuppies, drag kings and queens, homeless people, international students, musicians, vagabonds and plenty of us who don't quite fit into any single stereotype. 

The Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle has always had character. The wealthiest pioneers built grand mansions on the very top of the hill more than a century ago that is now a delightfully antique residential area for modern-day upper-middle class families. For the past 50 years or so, the gay community has found the neighborhood welcoming, and it was home to the first ever pride parade. Nowadays, Forbes Magazine (clearly the most accredited judge of "cool") has ranked the neighborhood as one of
 the hippest in the country

Saturday's lemonade stand provided a conduit to actually talk to people walking past. Rather than the usual habit of avoiding eye contact, the lemonade stand was an in-your-face "Did you just say free lemonade!?" way to grab people's attention.

"This is awesome! We need to have more things like this," was the resounding sentiment from most of the people. They wanted to get involved and learn how Seattle can become better connected through a GOOD Local chapter. Soon the sidewalk was decorated with hop scotch boards, doodles, and colorful praises for the neighborhood.

"I'm here visiting and things like this make me really wish my city was more like Seattle," one lady said as she stopped by. "This is such a neat community."

Those three hours on the busy corner also brought attention to glaring contradictions we have in our society. Some homeless people tried to give us donations of spare change, while several couples going to or from brunch skeptically stared at us as they walked by -- almost certain there had to be some sort of strings attached to our free offer.

However, several dozen neighbors stopped to grab a glass and talk about their Capitol Hill experience and how they would like to connect with their neighbors. It's evident there is a strong desire among people to genuinely engage as a more cohesive community. Saturday's lemonade stand was a baby step to start capturing some of that spirit and applying it towards good neighboring.

explore. think.