I am ever amazed at what I accidentally learn on the way to seemingly more important things. I was recently part of a blue-ribbon panel on the future viability of retirement. The primary topic of conversation was the impending specter of a maddening throng of boomers using the political process to tip the scales of economic fortune in their favor to the detriment of all others. Prevailing logic has it that my generation will use its strength in numbers at the voting booth to maintain the status quo. This assumes that the generations that follow us will naturally carry the burden of our age. Yet, what has been lost in the conversation is the possibility that Millennials—our semi-adult twenty something children—might just opt out of our plan and more importantly our world view.
Many young people are now taking the opposite track of their parents’ and eschewing social and economic convention to challenge what we take to be civil society. On our way to developing innovative solutions to our imminent retirement debacle I learned from some of the most credible researchers on the planet that our children aren’t marrying; they have become the refuseniks of our competitive corporate culture and have effectively eschewed organized religion and even a belief in the almighty.
It is indeed difficult to imagine a world absent of marriage, capitalism and religion. For many of us these are the reliable struts that keep us upright and brace us when our world is akilter. But try as we might to hold firm to our ways the turn and churn of it all leaves us spinning. True innovation is born out in the very places where there is no solid ground.
Perhaps we should start with perfunctory look at some facts that suggest such an outrageous teaser:
The End of Marriage: According to a recent New York Times article, over half of all births to American women under thirty now occur outside of marriage. When adjusted for levels of education and economics the numbers skew dramatically higher. Lest we believe this is simply an issue of a rising underclass one only need look to Scandinavian countries, which rank among the highest educated in the world with a standard of living positioned well atop of our own, to see the same downward trend for marriage among the young. Their society has not collapsed, their children are well attended and by most discernible standards they are prospering.
Of course there is an array of possible causes for this trend which includes everything from the relative economic independence of educated women, a shift away from the cultural stigma of unwed parentage or even a latent reaction to the divorce of their own parents. This change brings a complex array of challenges. For example, marriage is a foundational element of our legal system—property, beneficiary and custodial rights and obligations. Some believe that the decline of matrimony has led to the increase of children living under the poverty level. If we pull the thread of marriage from the fabric of our society it is unclear what will unravel or remain intact. While societal norms may have changed, adjusting our legal system to protect unwed mothers and their children may still be far behind.
The Big Idea: Marriage version 2.0 with adjustable gradations and settings—children, pets, property, conditions—with new features to make it easier for people to participate and support hybrid and multiple family units.
The End of Capitalism: Well before the collapse of the economy in America and Europe young people started cultural movements that shifted the center of balance from economics to social values. According to Pew Research, this change is creating an enormous generation gap between Boomers and Millenials that is still widening. This may be driven by worst employment prospects in almost a century and a renewal of the idealistic frontierism with the Old West being the New Urban Corridor. Former examples of blight are now shining lights for our youth—Brooklyn, Cleveland and Detroit come to mind. Look around and you can see signs of the new anti-commercialism everywhere: shared houses and cars, urban farm collectives and the end of intellectual property rights, etc. A recent issue of the Utne Readerwas dedicated as a “Millenial Survival Guide” and filled with dozens of useful suggestions for living in a post-capitalist world. Pass the beer nuts comrade.
A recent cover story of Time went as far as to call them the “Me Me Me Generation.” While the issue set off a torrent of snarky responses what seems to have been largely missed by the piece is the collaborative nature of this group. There is a noticeable shift away from traditional careers in favor of values-centric goals of communal harmony. For example, a greater percentage of recent college graduates now seek to work in nonprofits than in the previous four decades. While this can be attributed to the dismal jobs situation or the availability of posh parental support it still suggests a change in attitudes about what constitutes meaningful work. The global and inclusive view of Millenials may help bridge the gap between haves and have-nots but don’t count on them to keeping up with your social security payments.
The Big Idea: A newfangled system of socially sensitive economics and collaborative governance—less meritocracy and more democracy - Linux meets LinkedIn in the Netherlands.
The End of Religion: Yikes! Where to start? According to the Washington Post twenty five percent of Millennials don’t affiliate with a faith based tradition and almost twice as many don’t belong to a church. A recent poll in the New York Times set off a maelstrom of controversy when it suggested that an increasing majority of Jewish youth no longer identify themselves with their religion. Adding to the palaver a Pew Research study suggests that an astonishing low number of youth believe in the existence of a God. While religious participation, affiliation and even belief are waning in the West—both post-Christian Europe and the Americas – atheism is now among the fastest growing denominations albeit an anti-faith.
What has driven our youth away from their spiritual traditions in record numbers at record speed? A recent report from the Center for American Progress—a progressive think tank—suggests a culture gap. They characterize this gap as both a push away from church dogma regarding same-sex marriage and reproductive rights and a pull towards an unwavering belief in science and personal development. Abuses by clergy and power plays by the bully pulpit may also factor into this divide. Even evangelical magazine Relevant notes that social media savvy Millenials are increasingly rejecting the hierarchy of the church and turning to each other for spiritual solace and advice.
The Big Idea: A mashup of beliefs and non-beliefs—a jumble of traditional religious precepts, personalized spiritual practices such as meditation and yoga, the latest scientific breakthroughs in areas such as physics, a mixture of psychotherapy and self help—interspersed into a customized collage of faith.
While many of us hold marriage, capitalism and religion among our most cherished beliefs with time the voices of my generation will fade while the voices of the next will be raised up. Big ideas are often slow to develop. It’s the small facts, the imperceptible turn in the narrative and the inconspicuous characters that in the end take the story in a new direction. My own interpretation of trends and their meaning are surely works in progress to be revised and revised and revised again. Only the unread believe they know the end of the tale at the first turn of the page.
Our young are seeking new answers to their questions - not ours. Perhaps marriage, capitalism and religion continue to work for this next generation but in innovative new ways and in new forms. Big ideas bring big change.
Often overlooked Generation X may play a most valuable role in these social innovations for they speak both Boomer and Millennial fluently and have repeatedly demonstrated their unique ability to develop brilliant transitional strategies of their own. If there is to be a third way—a middle way—a new way—it will be this generation that leads the way. By then it may be time for us Boomers to retire. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, back to that little problem. I guess when compared to the end of marriage, capitalism and religion it doesn’t seem so big.