Yes, youth. And, age.
How Boomers and Gen Z’ers can learn from each other.
“Kids these days.”
Have you ever been criticized for being a member of your generation? Young or old, it seems like we can’t resist the urge to defend our own generation by tearing down another. Well, we think we’re doing the right thing by our generation; I believe our cross-generational animosity actually hurts both the young and the old, regardless of who is on the receiving end.
Last summer I met an incredible man whose humility was so genuine you could almost feel it. Standing outside of a Washington, D.C. ice cream shop in the July humidity, intensified by a rainstorm which had just passed through, I soaked in wisdom from a man who had experienced several lifetimes’ worth of challenges and contributed several lifetimes’ worth of good to the world. Major General Archie Fields had been a student leader in the NFA (New Farmers of America, an organization for young African-American agriculturists), worked in government intelligence, and fought for the nation, exhibiting humility and leadership each step of the way. As I listened, I was in awe of the grace he so clearly extended to the people around him, even those who deliberately made his life more difficult. The circumstances of the NFA’s 1965 merger with the FFA are not as simple as we often learn in our agriculture classes, and many of the major general’s generation are bitter—and not unreasonably so. Instead of holding a grudge, Major General Fields has chosen to continue to engage with the younger generations leading the FFA, humbly offering up his own wisdom while listening to our perspectives, too.
As young people, we want to be taken seriously. When adults don’t listen to our perspectives, or brush us off as “too young to understand,” it makes us feel small. Our opinions do matter and our perspectives are valid. These facts are not an excuse to lash out at older generations; rather, they are an opportunity to build two-way channels of meaningful engagement between the older and the younger. Often young people brush off older perspectives, because “that’s just not how the world works anymore” or “they just don’t get it.” Sometimes we’re right, and that’s precisely why an attitude of humility and mutual curiosity is so vital.
The major general last summer shared his life stories with my teammates and I because we exhibited a genuine curiosity and desire to learn from him. He, in turn, asked for advice and perspective from my generation because he was wise enough to know the world does, indeed, change with time. If we think our take on the world is the only right one, or the only currently relevant one, we miss out on decades of wisdom which could be understood if we simply listened, openly, to those from other generations.
What’s your expertise?
Older generations have seen more of the world than those of us with less than two or three decades of life under our belts. This doesn’t mean they’re always right, but it does mean they likely have a broader perspective on how life changes over time, the types of things we might regret down the road, and how the world works in a practical sense. Older people tend to be more cynical, and they may come across as stuck in their ways or buzzkills, criticizing our young idealistic dreams. On the flip side, younger people tend to have a fresh perspective on the world as it currently is. We know our own generations really well, and can provide that insight to older people. Our idealism can lead to innovation and new solutions which would be overlooked or underestimated by older people; yet, it can also be our downfall if we fail to acknowledge the potential dangers of our own optimism.
If you’re young, lean into your idealism. Bring that fresh perspective to the older folks in your life, but do so with humility. Listen to their pushback and let your ideas be challenged by their decades of wisdom. Your ideas will end up stronger this way. If you’re older, bring your broad perspectives to the young people in your life. Sharpen their ideas with your practicality, but don’t kill their dreams with your cynicism. Listen to learn about why their generation is different from yours, and help them find their place in the world. It may be different from yours, and that’s okay. Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z… we all have things to learn from each other, and we should lean into our generation’s strengths instead of mocking another’s weaknesses.
Of all the things I remember Major General Fields’ sharing with my teammates and I, one of the most prominent was on our Uber ride back from the ice cream shop. We got on the topic of running, and the major general—who, might I remind you, is less than 20 years away from turning 100—casually mentioned he likes to run ten miles several times a week. I was, quite frankly, in awe. It takes me a month (at best) to log as many miles as he does in three days. I felt humbled. I’d underestimated the man because of his age, and ever since, I’ve found myself being more careful of how I view older generations.
There’s a vital balance between optimism and cynicism, aged wisdom and young innovation, calculated risk and reckless action. Generations need each other. Our stubborn arrogance is not only damaging relationships between generations, but reducing our own generations’ abilities to do good for the world. Don’t underestimate each other. Don’t talk down to each other. Don’t reduce your interaction with another generation to a snarky one-liner. The world—and you—will be better for it.