“When will we return to normal?” This is one of today’s most frequently asked questions, quickly followed by, “What will the new normal be like?”
Asking those questions is often a search for a comforting answer: the good old days are just around the corner. But I don’t believe we will ever return to the nostalgic era of pre-Covid. And, even if we could, I don’t think our successors––the Millennial and Z generations–– will accept that as the optimum.
Those of us among the three older generations grew up and became adults in a world that the latter two never knew, and they don’t believe that we are equipped to answer either question for them. Our children and grandchildren see the Silent, Baby Boom and X generations as too encumbered by the past to credibly envision the future they hope for. And, to a large extent, they are correct.
The Millennials and Z’ers form an alliance of digital natives who were born between 1980 and 2012, and they are 50.7 percent of the U.S. population. The oldest of them were young adults at the time of 9/11/2001, and the youngest of the Z’ers were being home-schooled on 1/6/2021.
The reality of foreign violence on our shores and the U.S Capitol being invaded and vandalized by an unruly mob of fellow citizens is an indelible part of the younger generations’ formational experience. Neither of those events could be imagined by my white, middleclass peers when we were their age.
Think about the America they were born into and have come of age in. During their short lifespan most have never known a time in which America was not fighting in foreign wars. The deadly and destructive consequences of climate change (floods, fires, severe storms, melting glaciers and flooded streets) have become commonplace rather than an environmentalist’s theory. They have lived through recessions and a deadly pandemic and have suffered the pain inflicted by both. These experiences influence their understanding of “normal.”
Gun violence and killings in their schools, and even in churches, are in the forefront of their formational memories. In my youth, those of us in the white middle class believed that schools, neighborhoods and homes were safe places. We didn’t worry if our kids went to the mall unsupervised, or walked to school, or bicycled to a neighbor’s home. Not so for millions of Millennials and Z’ers of all races.
Consequences of Neglect
The inevitable consequences from years of neglect and denial about the extent of racism has come to a head during their young lives. In my school days, those consequences were largely ignored (and, sadly, too often not even recognized) by the white establishment. Race riots were things that “others” did, while most of us who grew up in predominately white America glanced at it on television, shook our head and went outside to play.
The injustice of it all was not taught or discussed in our classrooms and often not even recognized by our parents. Even today, some states use history textbooks that do not accurately portray the evils of slavery, racial discrimination and the savageness of the white man’s conquest and destruction of Native American homelands.
Many of us in the Silent and Boomer generations are beginning to realize the extent of the damage we have inflicted on the nation by failing to pay attention. I, too late in life, reached an understanding that turning a blind eye on injustice is in fact participating in the injustice. While there were many courageous white men and women who marched, fought and legislated in those days, it was not part of the common experience of our time.
The pain faced by victims of misogyny, the persecution of LGBTQs, and the vast economic, educational and medical care inequality faced by millions was not often seen by much of white middleclass America in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Yes, there were courageous white leaders, but the “troops” didn’t follow them.
Everything from the evil of racism to the inadequacy of our institutions is not only questioned by Millennials and Z’ers, but is being confronted by them. We elders talk about the integrity of our longstanding policies, structures and processes. They talk about radically and urgently changing policies, structures and processes. They don’t suggest that the Congressional process of “budget reconciliation” is the best path to resolving political loggerheads. Instead, they purpose getting rid of the filibuster, increasing the minimum wage, enacting the Green New Deal and reforming voting rights.
Listen and Ponder
If you really want to know what the new normal can be, listen closely to the emerging leaders between the ages of 20 and 40–––your children and/or your grandchildren. Remember, they make up a majority of Americans, and they see possibilities where we see archaic processes that haven’t functioned well for decades.
The future is theirs. They have a vision and the 21st-century skills needed to bring it into being. We have wisdom accumulated through years of success and failure that can be helpful to them as they envision and build the future they covet. If we do our eldering job well, maybe we will receive the gift that God gave Moses: a view from the top of the mountain to watch the Joshua generation cross the river into the new world.
Next week I will pick up at this point and look at what it means to be an elder, and how those of us between the ages of 50 and ancient can be helpful cogs in the wheels of future progress. Meanwhile, I have some homework for you: talk to some under 40. Ask them what their vision is for a just and equitable American future. Then listen without judgement and ponder what they have to say without filters.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.