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Speaking Across Generations

(A bit of a departure from my usual topics but this is what has been on my mind lately. In workplaces, families, communities we need to open up better dialogues across the generations. The inspiration for this piece came from my frustration with a client who is trying to improve the conversation between generations. I hope it provides some food for thought.)

I was one of those ardent, asshole, well intentioned, foul mouthed hippies protesting the war in Vietnam, racial inequality and women’s rights. My brother and friends were being drafted to serve in a senseless conflict, my university had an embarrassingly low enrollment rate of minorities, abortion was illegal, the notion of women having serious careers was laughed at and sexual harassment was a daily battle. I marched in the war moratorium in DC, wore my ass out at various campus sit ins, swore at the university regents for not creating a women’s studies seminar, battled with my mother because I didn’t want to be a housewife, shared my hard-earned waitressing tips with my friends who needed to get to New York for clandestine abortions and sang protest songs with my friends of color.

I was certain that I was right and that anyone who didn’t agree with my peer group’s stand on social justice was wrong. Not evil. Not bad people. Just wrong. After all, they were from another era and only us 20 somethings had the true pulse of right and wrong. And it was my job to let them know how wrong they were all the time.

Sound familiar? I watch and listen to people in their 20’s and 30’s and hear the 2019 version of 1970. In 1970, my generation felt the threat of death to our male peers and the suffocating oppression of women and minorities. We couldn’t take it sitting down. In 2019, the youth feel the threat of climate change and the continued oppression of women and minorities (despite the enormous gains). With the multiplier effect of social media, they are using their voices to push for change.

But something feels very different to me. I certainly see myself in the ranting millennial (even if they see me as an irrelevant relic). Maybe it has to do with the opposition. Hippies had to contend with a 50’s cultural mentality that resisted social change and political leaders that made informed but bad choices. Today’s youth battle a divisive and hate filled culture that has enacted many social changes and political leaders that no longer work together on behalf of the American people. My generation did plenty of screaming and shouting but we also did a great deal of talking and learning. Today’s generation abbreviates their positions via Twitter so that every post is headline or follower worthy. Learning seems to take place more on line than IRL and I’m not sure I trust that.

It seems we’ve lost the art and practice of attentive dialogue along the way. I keep thinking that is why things feel so different and so bad.

The dean of my college was an older white professor with a gentle demeanor. I respected and adored him. He had the (unfortunate) job of overseeing the faculty and students during very crazy times. To pay for my room and board, I spent two years as a resident assistant. That meant that the dean and I had frequent contact. It was not unusual for me to burst into his office to complain about some patriarchal decision. Nor was it uncommon for him to invite me to his office to debate some action I took.

He summoned me for a private conversation just before parent orientation. I was responsible for conducting those meetings.

Dean: Nicki, we need to discuss how to talk to these parents.

Me: What’s on your mind? I thought we agreed on the talking points.

Dean: The content isn’t at issue. It’s your behavior. You simply can’t swear during these sessions.

Me: What the hell do you mean? This is how I talk. Are you asking me not to be myself? Are you telling me that I should lie to these parents and give them the false impression that their children are never going to curse while they are in college? What the f***, Dean?

Dean: In your role, you are an ambassador for the college. You are the difference between a family being excited or horrified that they are leaving their child with us. You are the difference between potential financial supporters or detractors. You have responsibility to the institution.

Me: (lots of swearing and protesting that the Dean wanted to put me in a box)

Dean: (lots of patient listening, not interrupting me, sitting calmly)

Dean: Nicki, I respect your position and feel there is a time and place for your freest self. These parent orientation sessions are not that time or place. I am asking you to do me a favor and help the college. I’m asking you to think about something bigger than your personal freedom at this moment. Can you do that?

Me: I understand your point. I really do. I’m just trying to be real. But, yes, I can clean it up for these meetings.

Dean: I appreciate that.

Me: But I can still be myself at our assembly meetings, right?

Dean: Of course, you can. Thanks.

Long after I left college, I missed this man. I missed his good heart, his grace under constant fire, his ability to hear the message inside a rant. I was a good hearted, well intentioned rebel who didn’t always earn the respect I was granted by this man. I wonder if this type of dialogue is what is missing today.

Are millennials interested in or seeking to understand the person before them? Do they want to have a conversation or do they just want to persuade others of how right they are? Are they aware that they cut off dialogue routinely? How much listening, hearing, learning are they engaged in?

And do we former hippies (baby boomers) listen as respectfully as my dean did? Do we hear the core message? Are we telling our stories to create a connection between the generations? These were the actions of my elders that a) made me less of an asshole, b) taught me some incredible personal histories, c) contextualized previous generation’s struggles and d) created long term relationships.

So, I have a message for both generations. To the millennials: your elders are not the enemy or horribly out of touch. We may not use all the appropriate woke language, but many of us made it possible for you to use your voices today. Rather than shouting us down, find out more about us. To the baby boomers: don’t get so damned defensive. We were them at one time and we know how to build bridges to all sorts of groups. Find out where their passion is coming from. And to both generations: Lighten up! Don’t be so dismissive. We’re on the same team and we need everyone to make the world right. Both generations have remarkable gifts that are needed at this depressing and scary time. Neither one has the corner on the market of the best way or the best words or the best type of leader.

We are in this together. Let’s act like it.

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