Generational Distance

Photo by Kerde Severin on

I recently participated in a workshop looking at Christians and the environment and one of the big themes was the need to engage on the topic due to its relevance to younger people. Three things stuck out for me.  First, we looked at data showing high proportions of young people expressing concern and even fear about the future of our planet and frustration at the failure of older generations to act.  This included a statement that 9 in 10 young Christians believe that the Environment is a crucial issue but that only 1 in 10 believed that the church was doing enough about it.

Now, it struck me that those figures haven’t come out of nowhere. Young people have not spontaneously become alarmed about the environment.  Rather, there has been a growing awareness of the challenges over about a 40 year period.  This means that there is a long and embedded narrative.  When Christians and churches talk about joining a conversation, they need to recognise that they are very late to the party. What is true about the environment is true about other cultural, identity and ethical issues. On a side note, there is a lesson to learn here about needing to put in the long term groundwork when seeking to influence culture and ideas.

The second thing that struck me was that in a room where most of us were in our late forties and above, that we often talked about the environment in terms of technological solutions such as solar panels and electric cars.  Yet, the debate has moved on from there. In fact a big complaint is that our trust in technological advances leave us complacent.  Generation Z both enjoy the benefits of technology and are suspicious of its ability to offer solutions to big problems.

Thirdly, we talked a bit about the importance of curiosity if we are going to engage.  Now, regular readers will know that I highly value curiosity.  However, I don’t get the impression that Greta Thunberg is asking for us to be more curious.  The chants are not “What do we want? Thoughtful engagement. When do we want it? During an extended chat over coffee.”  There is rather a dogmatic zeal that arises out of a sense of rightness and urgency.  There are I think other reasons why I would suggest that we are creating an uncurious generation but that’s for another day.

In that conversation, I really became aware of my age and that sense of distance from the up and coming generation.  That should be obvious, I was born in 1974, so I’m  part of Generation X, the younger generation coming through today are Generation Z, between us are the millennials, I’m one step removed from today’s culture. 

This is important and links to my first point about how long conversations have been going on and it means that there’s been a shift in thinking with each generation. I think we could sum it up as follows.

The Boomer Generation (post war) would still have understood things in terms of a view of right and wrong.

My Generation, Gen X would to some extent have still shared similar values but were increasingly aware of a failure to show tolerance and love to those who took a different view to ours.

Millenials would have had a greater alertness to the question of tolerance but also would have been thinking more and more in terms of pluralism and moral neutrality, questioning the distinctions of right and wrong.

I want to submit the hypothesis that we have now seen a further development summed up in memes where Christians suddenly recognise that we are not seen as the good guys.  It’s not just that we are being called to tolerate diverse views but the argument is that our ethic is wrong and the alternative view is right. 

This touches on a whole host of cultural and ethical issues and my purpose here is not to debate the specific issues (though we probably will cover a lot of them at some point).  Rather, my focus here is just to highlight something important.   We talk about crossing cultures but often the biggest cultural divide is not geographical but generational and so that’s where our attention needs to be.

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