#HowToInsultEveryone

The “internet” always craves something fresh to talk about it, and loves to talk about nothing more than itself. So the meme #HowToConfuseAMillennial was tailor-made for controversy.

The meme started as a probably humorous jab against millennials. As one journalist put it: “It was a cute way to bash what many in my generation and above think is a culture of apathy and privilege.”

But there are a few millennials on Twitter, and the tables quickly turned:

I offer two comments about this episode.

First, today’s America is acutely aware of intergenerational differences. And we are indeed in the midst of a massive generational change: the Baby Boomers, after being the dominant game in town for decades, are being supplanted in many institutions by other generations. Witness the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008, for instance. Clinton was positioned as the heir of FDR and JFK, an experienced and long-dedicated candidate against the promising but inexperienced Obama. Obama, on the other hand, was presented as a fresh start for the country, a new face who could lead us past the partisan and ideological divides in which Clinton was complicit. Even if Obama is by some definitions a Baby Boomer, the considerable difference in age and outlook was clear.

Our awareness of intergenerational differences is only sharpened by technological changes. Indeed, an internet search or perusal of a newspaper would suggest that the generational divides are defined almost entirely by such technology dynamics.

My second point, however, is that America cannot afford to allow these differences to obscure the deeper characteristics that unite us. Plenty divides Americans: politics, economics, religion, economics, sexuality, etc. Generational distinctions, especially about technology, should not pile on to that list.

But the tweets admittedly reveal painful differences: older generations feel a great sense of responsibility for the country, but they also feel unappreciated and left behind in the dizzying movement of the 21st century. The younger generations feel as though they are not taken seriously, and that previous generations have saddled them with massive political, economic and social problems.

In other words, both generations feel like the dutiful but unappreciated older son in the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32): they are in their own ways trying to be responsible, and they aren’t getting any credit for it.

What is the solution to such problems? For starters, avoiding two extremes: nostalgia and futurism.

What kind of nostalgia? In his recent book, The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin worries that both political parties are captured by a nostalgia for times past. The parties, he argues, hold up very different times as exemplars: Democrats typically yearn for the radical ‘60s, and the Republicans for the idyllic ‘50s. But both parties regularly invoke returning to some earlier time as the solution to our problems, and both think there is little electoral incentive to asking tough questions about the present state of our society. For Levin, America needs leaders who can envision new possibilities that reflect our new realities. And those leaders, by and large, would not be Baby Boomers.

But futurism would be equally dangerous. Our culture is overly impressed by our own novelty, and particularly when it comes to technology. “Social media has changed everything” is one of the most common tropes of our times. But what about more mundane forms of life? Have our need for family, friends, marriage, work changed that drastically? In manifold forms, these features have endured for a long time. Perhaps it would behoove us to be more attentive as a nation to what has not changed, to what has endured. Then we might be more appreciative of the experience and wisdom of older generations.

Guarding against nostalgia and futurism would not just be intellectual exercises. They would require engaging relationally with people both  younger and older than us. After all, this conversation arose on Twitter, an intensely public and political arena. But the issues behind it emerged much closer to home, in private and personal settings: in our families, among our friends, at work. The thoughtful reader wanting to engage these issues of intergenerational justice, then, might begin by reflecting upon and reimagining his or her relationships with people from other generations.

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