Ellie — I just looked it up and you’re officially a member of Generation Z, along with everybody else born since 2000. There’s some quibbling about this, of course. Your cohort might also be called iGen or Post-Millennials — or by the time you read this, you might be called something else entirely.
So far, your generation is described as being comfortable with technology and diversity and concerned about student debt from college. At three months, you haven’t articulated much of this, but it’s nice to realize that when you’re crying, it must be about higher education.
People will categorize and describe your generation for the rest of your life. Much of it’s over-simplified, of course — but there’s strong commonality you share with people your own age. You’ll have the same cultural memories of music and art, remember the same heart-stopping moments when cataclysms strike and everything changes. It’s a profound tie for the rest of your life.
Your other grandparents and I are members of the Baby Boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964. We made our debut during an affluent, can-do time after the Second World War when everything seemed possible. The U.S., we were taught at school and home, was the greatest, most powerful country in the world.
Our own parents had grown up in a very different age, in perilous times, struggling through the Great Depression and World War II. In a book, the newsman Tom Brokaw called them the Greatest Generation for meeting these enormous challenges. The name stuck.
Nobody’s ever called the Baby Boomers the greatest generation — we were just the biggest and loudest. We were rowdy and rebellious on college campuses, protesting the Vietnam War and rampant materialism and inequality.
Opa’s cousin Peter was one of the country’s pioneering hippies. He wrapped an American flag around himself, sat down in a gutter, and promptly got arrested and briefly famous. Older members of the family were aghast, younger members ecstatic. (This was called the Generation Gap. The Greatest Generation thought Boomers were spoiled, lazy, narcissistic, and addled by drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll. We thought they were rigid and authoritarian.)
Truth is, Boomers still aren’t terribly popular. We’ve always been such an enormous generation that we set off tidal waves every time we twitched; we also suffered in comparison to the Greatest Generation, since we hadn’t overcome the kind of adversity they did. But most of us grew up and became responsible citizens, even if Cousin Peter stayed a hippie for the rest of his life (and we all loved him for it).
And now, we’re getting old and sucking resources from Social Security and Medicare. This hasn’t made us any more popular. (Old! — when we were pretty sure we were going to be young forever. Will the indignities never stop? Oh, that’s right: We’re going to die, too.)
But you know what? I only buy these generational characterizations to a point. Sure, our generation was affected by comfort and affluence, and yes, we were probably over-indulged. But I get weary of all the name-calling, whether it’s accusations about my generation or talk about your parents’ Millennials generation and their sense of entitlement.
It’s an age-old tradition to automatically criticize other generations for everything they’re doing wrong. Mostly, though, younger generations are just committing the “sin” of being young and inexperienced (which time remedies pretty quickly, as you’ll soon see). And older generations, you’ll find, are born into an imperfect world and can’t be blamed for everything they leave behind. Most of us just do our best.
Yes, every generation grows up in a different world. But I don’t believe human nature changes that much from generation to generation. We all want love and connection to others. We want to be noticed and appreciated. We all want to forge meaningful lives, lives that matter somehow.
That’s your great task in life: to create a meaningful life in a world that’s chaotic, troubled, and unfair — but also exciting and exhilarating and stunningly beautiful. That’s the task we’ve all had — your grandparents, your parents, and now you.
So, what’s a meaningful life, anyway? That’s a question for the ages and we all answer it in different ways. It doesn’t have to be a “big” life to be meaningful. In my later years, I’ve realized, the goal of being a decent, kind, loving human being can be more than enough. Love, CocoXO
(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)