7 min ago
This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces” at billschmitt.substack.com. Please take a look at this publication on Substack.
Current political discourse tends to spotlight society’s divisions based on race and gender. Get ready to deal more explicitly with another source of discord which is literally time-sensitive and ages-old: the so-called generation gap.
We already see—and should probe more closely—the different viewpoints of Baby Boomers (our elders), Generation X, the Millennials and Gen-Z (our kids). Those perspectives are important undercurrents in our debates about economic insecurity, human dignity, advanced technology, our national character, and more.
Dare we add “generational theory” to our necessary but tumultuous encounters with critical race theory, queer theory, etc.?
We can hear previews of the theory—an analysis of societal trends based on the quartet of age groups now dominant in the public square—as the 2024 political season gets under way.
Presidential candidate Nikki Haley warned her Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) audience on March 4 that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight White House races. Her solution:
“If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation.”
That kind of rhetoric will grow. It is commonplace in news stories quoting strategists who stress over the ages of President Biden (80) and former President Trump (76).
If the Baby Boom started in 1945, Biden is already an outlier, relegated by theorists to a non-mainstream population called the Silent Generation. Among these forerunners of the boom, the Great Depression and World War II were the turning points which shaped lifelong outlooks.
Those crises constituted a tectonic shift in the timeline, which at least one theory calls a Fourth Turning. These transformative disruptions occur in America about once every 80 years.
The landmark 1991 book that spawned such calculations offers plenty of grist for politicization. Some say the ideas advanced by Generations: The History of America’s Future are especially resonant in conservative thought—at least to the degree that they predict the next cultural overhaul.
Neil Howe, who co-authored that book with William Strauss (1947-2007), aims to regenerate excitement about the concepts with his new release later this year. The title will declare: “The Fourth Turning is Here.”
Other commentaries based on the “seasons of history” are already in the bookstores. A member of the Millennials added to our lexicon with her 2020 title, OK, Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind. This January brought The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.
None of this content actively aggravates a generational fracture in the body politic. But the heightened consciousness of age groups, each contributing sharply different experiences and aspirations to the electoral process, opens the door for a more complicated, and perhaps confrontational, democracy. Especially if crises further erode society’s common ground.
The debate about “saving” Social Security and Medicare will become more urgent, for example, with politicians promising there will be no “cuts.”
But pandering to Boomers will be tricky. The deadline approaches for policymakers to address the whole question of “entitlements.” Younger generations will demand answers to their own financial vulnerability. Generation X is turning 60.
Many in Gen-Z deem home-ownership unlikely. Millennials await a Supreme Court ruling on college-loan relief. Parents wonder about education and jobs for their children.
When these voters look at today’s politicians, they see older faces reflecting concerns and strategies that are not their own. Leadership ranks today look more like the reality of a diverse society, but they ultimately will be judged by performance, not appearance.
A heightened focus on generational groups could become weaponized. Some conservative pundits, going beyond their ad hominem jabs based on old age, spout insensitive comments on the way younger newsmakers look, act, or think.
Superficial assumptions risk offending constituencies whose perspectives were formed over time by an evolving culture and visceral epiphanies about self, other persons, and the world.
We are wise to fear new spotlights on America’s divisions. But we should tap into the broader consciousness of generational theory, which adds a new dimension to our understanding of diversity. That requires appreciating the past, and taking the pulse, of individuals and groups whose years of birth help constitute their identities.
Major national crises are inevitable. We know from the COVID pandemic that age differences matter. Various developments have taught us that memory and outlook, fed by lived experience, will influence how we solve our biggest problems.
Generational theorists, and Americans at large, can agree that the only way to ride out a Fourth Turning, or any turn of events, is to bridge our cultural gaps. We need fair-minded and age-conscious wisdom that embraces a democracy for all seasons of history.
What Makes a University Catholic?
Bishop Robert Barron recently spoke at the University of Notre Dame on the subject of being a truly Catholic university. Here’s his talk. He reminded the audience that the idea of a university actually proceeded from the heart of the Church. Translate that into Latin, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and you have Pope John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical describing his vision of a Catholic university.
Bishop Barron offered his own excellent description of an open-minded, learning community that knows its mission and helps young people to discern and energize their individual missions. Addressing the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, he recalled G.K. Chesterton’s statement that the job of open minds, like open mouths, is ultimately to close on something nutritious. Chesterton also cautioned us, “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”
Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.