Coming of Age: The Collaborative Generation

By Jim Selman | Bio

There was an interesting article in the New York Times on Generation OMG speculating on the impact of the current economic crunch on our younger generations. It compares some of the conventional wisdom about the impact of the “Great Depression” on our parents with views on how the “Great Recession” will affect our children. The conclusion is that nobody knows, although most believe that living in tough times does affect how people see the world and can forge a generation’s ‘way of being’.

I am not sure I believe this—it is too deterministic and there are too many exceptions and generalizations to buy the theory. Nonetheless, it can be a useful inquiry.

My father is a conservative man who made practical choices throughout his life. He stayed in the military after WWII because it was a more reliable option than taking risks in the private sector, given his responsibility for raising a family. Was this a product of being a teenager in the Depression or a product of his character? His brother, my uncle, took a different path and became a successful and relatively wealthy businessman.

At some point, this kind of musing comes down to biology versus environment. Social science is full of theories and studies focused on trying to understand why we are the way we are and why we do what we do.

One statement in the article I do agree with is this:

“There is no simple cause-and-effect relationship in how economic adversity pushed a generation into any one kind of behavior,” said Neil Howe, who with his longtime co-author, William Strauss, is credited with naming today’s 20-somethings the millennials. “The impact depends on the context and the mood of the time and how children understand the spirit of the times.”

It seems to me that the context and prevalent mood today is very much a function of technology and the fact that more and more of life—and especially the future—is becoming unpredictable. People are realizing that:

  • We don’t control most of what we thought we controlled, and
  • Most of our assumptions about life and the future are either questionable or just plain wrong.

The result is that many young people are learning to be more flexible, to live more in the moment, and to be more creative and less ‘attached’ to their plans than generations who grew up in other times. By the same token, growing up living in the moment and focused on ‘real time’ has its drawbacks: it often occurs at the expense of tradition and valuable wisdom learned from experience and the past.

For this reason, we should expand the question about the impact of economic adversity in these turbulent times to include both younger and older generations. What is the impact of these times on our collective future and our behaviors in the present? In other words, what may be distinct and most important in times of economic adversity is not the impact on any specific generation, but on the relationship between the generations. The Great Depression, for example, was a time when community mattered: for many, community was a matter of survival.

Perhaps what we need, instead of another generational distinction, is a different way of looking at ourselves and what’s happening in the world. I wonder what our experience of life would be like if we began to talk in terms of the “Age of the Collaborative Generation”—a time when we begin to stop focusing on what is different between the generations, a time when we make fewer judgments and acknowledge that we need to learn from each other, a time when we start collaborating in new ways. A time unlike any in living memory.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.