My new generation

March 30th, 2020 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor / comments

My new generation

We’ve all heard plenty about the distinctives of those in their 70s, 50s and 30s, seeking to explain flashpoints and misunderstandings. I think it’s always been this way though our era has made this generational transition more obvious, even louder. But I wonder if our current extraordinary context is going to make us more unified in the face of a crisis. 

In a smaller way, compare this with a world war. Political, racial, regional and generational differences remain but they are muted in the face of a common threat. If we are all refined in the same crucible, we’ll have some new things in common for the rest of our lives. Here are a couple of things that seem to be softening those distinctives. 

Technology-An oft-cited characteristic of younger generations is that they are mind-melded with their devices. Right now, nearly all of us are using our phones and computers to keep us joined to our families, jobs, restaurants and churches. I sit here now writing on my laptop, listening to music from my tablet, waiting for a virtual meeting with my staff. This is different for me, more like the lives of my children.

Solitude and limits-Someone told me this quarantine was a good trial run for retirement. I argued with that idea because I don’t think retirement will be a time when I can’t go to church or sit in a room with people, but I also have more in common now with my shut-in elders than ever before. I feel their loneliness in a small way. Will it make us generally more sympathetic, more likely to call on them when we are able to do so? 

Creativity-Old(er) dogs are having to learn new tricks. There are things we need to do in order to be the people of God but we can’t do them in the same old ways. A couple of weeks into our isolation and social distancing directives we find new limits put on us every few days—another place we can’t go or thing we can’t do in the old way. How do we do what we need to do in the face of a relentlessly fluid context?

Consider the World War 2 generation. My grandfathers were definitely part of that generation as they served in the army in one case and a government post in the other. But my parents, children in those years, were also marked by those days as they experienced rationing, fear and the loss of friends or family. Those young men had parents as well--my great-grandparents—who shared the travails of the home front as well as anxiety for their kids. I’ve always considered them all part of that great generation that weathered xx, fought for and rebuilt America. The lines between them were smudged by extraordinary years. For me, a Cold War baby, WWII and the change it made to the world was as close to my childhood as 9/11 is to my grandchildren; none of them could remember it but each of them will live with the changes it made to our world. By my reckoning then, a major world event can easily impact four distinct generations. They can speak to each other about that event and their common experience of it. 

Again, we don’t yet have any reason to think the duration of this crisis will compare with that. Perhaps the death toll in our nation will be similar and the number who get sick much larger. But whether the duration is months or years our nation is marked for a generation. Some have suggested that friends will be less likely to hug, men less likely to shake hands, from now on. Future generations may not recall why a wave or a fist bump is the new expression of trust or affection if that’s the case. You who are younger now may be those “okay Boomer” people who explain it to tomorrow’s kids while they roll their eyes. Social distancing may, in some ways, become a permanent fixture in our culture. Remember old standard that said that a church auditorium is effectively full when it’s at 80 percent capacity? Maybe people will stop coming when the percentage is much lower from now on. 

For now, we all, my parents and my grandchildren, share the experience of waiting for the other shoe—a wave of tragedy that some predict—to drop into our disrupted lives. Perhaps the various friction points in our society will smooth out for a while. Maybe we’ll grant each other a little mercy as we pray for God’s mercy during the storm. 

I wouldn’t suggest that a tragedy is worth this little cease fire in our various cultural clashes, or even that these clashes are nothing important, but it is a comfort to be reminded that some things are bigger than our opinions and tribal traits. If we’re going to suffer the privations of a worldwide pandemic in any case, let’s embrace (metaphorically) our fellow sufferers as neighbors for next few weeks.