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.


1 comment:

  1. Alex would suggest you're letting the Baby Boomers off the hook a little too easily, but I'll let him speak for himself.

    I love the bits that you focused on in Thompson's article. It's always interesting to compare what pops out for different people.

    My personal favorite was this

    "We’re not all going to rush out and buy cars and houses as soon as we turn 30, not only because we still won’t be able to afford them, but because we recognize that these fundamental shifts are good for society as a whole, that they represent a rejection of the mindset that got us into this mess. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we still have very little power in this country"

    It's great. We will save ourselves so don't suggest we won't, but simultaneously coming out of a situation "okay" doesn't actually mean that everything is peachy. Things need to change. Our government needs to get itself back into the position of being our insurance policy and working for ALL people not just the 1% and the NRA. (Sorry that last bit has to do with my extraordinary frustration at the lack of progress in gun control).