A Letter to the Next Generations: Three To Think About For The “Bookends”
There’s a lot of talk and writing about the inter-generational challenges and opportunities we are knee-deep in at this point in our world with the amazing “bookend generations” – The Baby Boomers and The Millennials. Two huge generations, two interesting viewpoints, two sets of assumptions and beliefs (if one could truly broad-brush such large groups for discussion purposes), and two groups simultaneously inside the working and community development world.
Now for a guy like me, who is based inside the ever-so-sadly-named GenX group, we sometimes feel like that kid waiting to be pick in gym for the kickball teams… waiting and waiting (and waiting) to be called. If you follow the stereotype, however, we would probably be more accurate that kid who skipped gym *(BECAUSE it was kickball day) and decided to hang with the guys behind the gym, listening to Mother Love Bone and Nirvana while complaining with full-on angst over the state of the economy.
But here’s the thing: none of this is totally accurate.
Oh yeah, and it’s all 100% accurate too.
It is convenient, dare I say needed, to be doing these kinds of things. Defining generations, what makes them “tick” and how they differentiate themselves. It is natural. Makes total sense to organize ourselves with these categories, and it really does help us determine many ways to working and handling relationships with one another. But it also boxes us into corners – and that’s a big no-no for me. So, allow me to suggest a couple of things here that I feel can help us all along this long and winding road that is our community and our community development when it comes to the collective “us.”
1. There Is No Spoon.
Like in “The Matrix” movie, once we realize what we have – and what we don’t have – we might all be better off understanding the rules of the game (or how we can toss off the rules and reset the game itself). It is crazy to think of such huge groups we these broad-brushed viewpoints alone; however, these are good starting points of emphasis. They can be good landmarks to help guide you as you progress in your life, especially you professional life. Millennials, you are the largest generation made up of people who have a built-in sense of community-service while also looking for work that is fulfilling, flexible, adaptable to the work/life balance often hoped for, and many other things. Baby Boomers, you are the second largest generation made up of people who saw the struggle of your parents (coming home from WWII for many) and decided that your course of action was inherently to reset the board – with a little bit of “dropping out” splashed into the mix – while at the same time running up debts needed to be covered by future generations, but justified because it enabled a stronger, fuller quality of life that sparked a new sense of pride in the individual and the community at large.
These sound familiar?
How about we recognize these things are statements in layers of accuracy, but not full and complete stories. Working with a Millennial doesn’t totally mean someone who doesn’t want to work “as hard” as a Baby Boomer. And collaborating with a Baby Boomer won’t mean the reduction of technology or tech-savvy options to challenges. These might be true. They might not. But here’s what it will definitely mean: it WILL require time to assess the INDIVIDUAL based on (1) what you think you know of him/her; coupled with (2) what you LEARN about him/her by giving yourself time. Spoon? What spoon? Get to know the person holding the spoon. Don’t worry about what the spoon is…or isn’t.
2. Community is Jazz
No. I don’t think everyone needs to go out and download a bunch of jazz music to get along (but I do think everyone in the world should own “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis and “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane – and that it would be some of the best tribe-connecting tonic around the block), but I do think we need to start thinking like those jazz greats and many others who stood up and played with fellow musicians on this utterly American-created art form. Jazz is communication and negotiation at its best. There is form, but it is (by design) also somewhat form-less; rather, it is framed. Inside the framing, there are numerous conversations that can happen. The challenge is to make them relevant, make sense, be heard, be comprehendable, and not turn into talking over one another. That’s where the art really comes into play. Being able to negotiate between musicians for the benefit of the common good – the common piece of music. There is no right or wrong way to create jazz, but there are sign posts (like key signatures) and markers (chords and notes) that help plot courses and direction. It is our job, as the musicians, to be able to read these, and react to them (as in when to play, when not to). Jazz doesn’t make all the rules, just enough rules to say to us collectively, “OK… now build something here.” This is how community is made. By listening, negotiating, and playing alongside others. What seems like the “best practice” is often just a slick way of saying “this is how it is always been and it seems to be working.” I say, recognize how good (and different) our players are in this band, and let’s just jam!
3. I Like To Buy the World A Coke (But Really, Maybe We Shouldn’t)
This commercial was the touchy-feely feel good brand of the seventies. Connecting the world through song (and a nice product placement for us all to run out and buy of course), this was giving those who experienced it the sense of togetherness. That regardless of differences, we all were collectively in on this as one race – the human race. While I like the sentiment, what I find tough to swallow about this point is when it goes far beyond “unity” and moves into “conformity.” There is no One-Size-Fits-All in just about anything we have in terms of our community development. One man’s blight is another man’s art. So I don’t look to find ways to utterly unify at the risk of exploration of other ideas and ways of thinking. We are now on this path of the “Battle of the Work/Life Balance” connected to our roles as managers, co-workers, companies, and other systems. Here’s the thing about this: it very often aspires us to look to the extremes – either total conformity (a rigid culture of “this is what we are and that is all we are”) or total “PC” where our quest for diversity and multi-culturalism turns us into personal self-help book libraries or conference-badge collectors, just itching to learn that next “best approach to culture building.”
Our strength as a culture, and probably more appropriately defined as would be “as an incubator culture,” is our belief that with hard work, dedication, passion and drive… you can move mountains. Or at the very least, scale them for your success. We all don’t rise at the same level, with the same purpose, with the same speed, or even along the same mountain ridge… but the sense of “rise” is what’s key. The Rising (as Springsteen said) is about “How far I’ve gone / How high I’ve climbed.” When we are at our best, we invite, challenge, encourage, and inspire for that rising. We don’t care as much about the conformity or the climb, or the need to diversify the climb. We allow for those things to fold into our purpose – The Rising.
So instead of buying everyone the same beverage and sing the same song.. let’s present the present of climbing gear. A way to rise…. and a way to unify ourselves with the notion of ascension to high purpose and passion.
Like our best in music and sports, innovation comes from questioning standards. It comes from willingness to fail, get up, dust off, and try again. It comes from the attitude of “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” at times, and for other moments it comes from getting that special “blessing” from those who trekked before to go out and extend the creative palette forward. All of these things are sometimes impossible to do. All of these things are sometimes totally achievable. What’s the best way to wrap up this not-so-nicely wrapped gift of thought?
“Bookends” require books. Never stop learning. And never stop looking for more things to have in your library… but definitely get those jazz albums. They’ll change your life.