The young ones

Issue Date: December 28, 2007

An odyssey toward meaning

We humans appear to be hard-wired from our time in the Garden of Eden with a desire to impart labels. Perhaps having run out of flora and fauna to tag, we’ve turned to naming generations. From the Boomers to the Xers to the Nexters to the Millennials, we seem, at least in the United States, intent on creating categories for each new wave of humanity that arrives.

Even without a World War or a Depression, we seem expert in finding the nuances to accent our differences for the sake of figuring out what needs to be fixed, evangelized, reached out to or rubbed so smooth it fits into the cultural mainstream.

The Millennials, the latest in the line of named generations, have now been assigned a subcategory called the “odyssey years.” It’s a reference to that period when they go exploring, putting off the leap into marriage and nine-to-five work and the obligations that ultimately help define us.

But their explorations are not of the old-style, bicycle-around-Europe distractions that a past generation might have indulged in before taking the plunge into the “adult” world.

The Millennials, though they may have been raised in affluence and have a credit card in the back pocket, instead head for service, for volunteerism, for a joust with issues they think essential to making the world a better place.

That description -- as well as naming a generation -- of course deals in broad generalizations. But there’s evidence enough out there to suggest that rather than rushing in to try to fix them, we might just listen and observe what they have to say.

We should observe not in expectation of great wisdom, but rather to see where those who are products of an earlier generation’s successes and failures, greatness and mediocrity, spy a path to the future.

We know that as a whole they relate far differently, and with a higher degree of skepticism, toward institutions than older generations once did. Perhaps it is because they have seen so much institutional failure and lack of accountability, from the family level to business to church leaders. In their world, authority no longer gets conferred automatically, as it once was, by virtue of title or position. Rather, authority is something that grows from relationships of trust and that gains credibility on the basis of one’s experience. Who knows how that all will play out in a secular culture that increasingly wants unquestioning allegiance and in a church that increasingly seeks to silence questions and discussion.

If that approach sounds individualistic in the extreme, there is a corresponding and unmistakable pull they feel toward the larger community, the disenfranchised, a world in need of attention and healing. As they tell it, those motives are inextricably linked with the desire to understand others from the others’ perspective.

They may just provide, then, a balance in a culture arrogant enough to engage in endless wars and a challenge to a church increasingly fearful of the explorations of some of its most loyal thinkers. If only we take the time to listen.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2007

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