Gen Xers are generally afraid of intimacy. As a generation, they were the first to be defined by family breakdown through divorce. They looked at intimacy and saw that it died, and that when it died – when intimacy died: in previous generations, marriages didn’t last because of physical death, in war, in childbirth, to disease, to industrial accident: but now intimacy was dying – it hurt people...but that hurt was denied. Those who divorced denied that they were hurt, and denied that it hurt their children...but it left a generation afraid of intimacy, afraid of getting together, afraid of marriage, afraid of having kids.
For Gen X, the most important space became the personal space. With family left in ruins, friends were the safe place: for older Xers this was expressed on our TV screens by Cheers – where everyone knows your name – and for younger Xers, through FRIENDS and Sex And The City. Only personal belonging is considered authentic belonging – and this has massive implications for social and, in particular, for public belonging. Public belonging – joining, affiliation to larger groups, political parties, voluntary organisations – has been massively in decline. Gen X withdrew from the public arena - as was depicted by Douglas Coupland in his novel Generation X where a group of friends move into the Californian desert.
Church structures based primarily on the personal sphere (e.g. cell models) will not help Gen Xers engage with public, social and intimate relating.
In marked contrast to Gen X, who feared intimacy, Gen Y tends to want all of their relationships to be intimate. It is often noted that they have no awareness of public space: in the same way that in the cold call, the public space of business invades the personal space of the home, so the mobile phone allows Gen Y to invade public space such as public transport with intimate information such as sharing details of their sex lives or having a blazing row with someone not there in front of innocent bystanders. Neither do they handle social space well: whereas facebook depends on giving authentic snapshots of ourselves – too little information and no one can connect to us; too much information and it is more than people want to know – the facebook walls of Gen Y, their statuses brought up on my home page, broadcast their intimate loves and hatings...
This has profound implications. For one thing, if all relationships must be intimate in order to be authentic, where do you go with a truly intimate relationship? In fact, intimacy is devalued. If social and personal relating is perceived as intimate transactions – if we decide who we do and do not what to get to know better through increasingly false intimacy, then we cannot actually take any relationship further, deeper. Longing for intimacy as authenticity – and less scared of STDs – Gen Y is almost certainly more sexually active than Gen X...and therefore undermining their chances of genuine and long-term emotional and physical intimacy.
But there is another implication: if public relationships must be intimate in order to be authentic, that requires an unsustainable emotional toll on us: we ask too much both of ourselves and of other people. And this is a significant factor in Gen Y finding it hard to enter into a meaningful experience of the workplace: every job they try ultimately – and very quickly – disappoints...
Ironically, if they are to experience the intimacy that Gen Y craves, having grown up in the flowering of family breakdown and observed the loneliness of Gen X, we need to help them to engage in the public, social and personal arenas.