It was last fall, and we had extra time to get to the Georgia game before kickoff. I decided to take the “long way” into Athens, in order to show my high-school aged niece more of the town that she was beginning to consider for college.
I wanted to show her some of the places that were significant to our family, as my paternal grandmother grew up in downtown Athens, just about a mile from campus. I also wanted to demonstrate how things have changed over time. While avoiding the bypass and working our way down Atlanta highway, I pointed to the left of the car.
“There’s the mall…though I’m not sure how often you’ll come out here.” I knew, after all, that malls aren’t a thing anymore for Generation Z. People aren’t going to malls as much as we once did.
Those of us in Generation X can remember going to the mall just to hang out. There’s an entire genre of 80’s movies where the mall was practically a character in the films.
It was her answer, however, that was the real reality check. “Oh…I went to a mall once with my mom. I can’t remember which one.” Things have indeed changed. That answer let me know I wasn’t prepared for how much they have.
There are generational divides, and they are real. What appears to be different today is that the pace of change is faster, and is also rapidly accelerating. Us “old folks” need to understand this if we’re going to relate to those significantly younger than us.
The generation before us expected to work for the same employer for 30 or so years, retire with a gold watch, and enjoy a defined benefit pension for the remainder of their life. My generation was told to expect multiple different jobs, but use self-discipline to accumulate home equity and a healthy 401K balance in order to prepare for retirement.
Millennials have watched older folks live off of home equity for instant gratification, blow up the housing market with speculation, and under-invest to the point where half of the country can’t pay for a $400 emergency. They were then asked to work multiple unpaid internships before getting a paying job while trying to figure out how to pay off student loans.
I’m still not sure what Gen-Z is observing, because I can’t get most of them to look away from their phone screens long enough to articulate a position. Yet, I and we must try. They’re not just the future, but a big part of the present.
There are now more millennials than living baby boomers. They’re replacing us older folks in the workforce, in politics, and their influence is dominating social norms. They don’t take kindly to directives, especially from generations they too often find selfish or inept, and telling them “that’s just the way it is” will generate ridicule and scorn.
Us older folks have accumulated experience and hopefully some of us have converted that into wisdom. Too often, attempts to share that with the young folks comes across as misplaced nostalgia, or even worse, lectures. It is frequently because we don’t understand where they are, because like trips to the mall, we lack shared experiences to make our points with anecdotes from the past.
Whether those of us in the older generations like it or not, our days are closer to sunset than sunrise. The world is changing, and it will be the young people that continue to tailor the world around them as they see it. Our opportunities to change the world are now by influencing those younger than us.
Too many from the older generations have decided that younger folks are “wrong” and thus choose to ignore them. We do this at our own peril. There must be dialogue, but it must be from a place that our younger folks find relatable.
Chances are, these conversations won’t take place at the mall. Instead, we need to start by looking for some common ground.