Friday, September 03, 2010

Space : Interaction : Generations : 4

I am reflecting on the four different contexts of belonging - the public, the social, the personal, and the intimate – and how different generations engage with these different contexts in different ways. I have already made some observations of Gen X (born approx 1960s-1970s) and Gen Y (born very approx 1980s-1990s; today’s young adults), and now I want to fill out the picture by taking a look at the two older generations – the Builders (born approx pre WWII) and the Boomers (born mid-twentieth century) – and the younger generation, Gen Z (born approx 1990s-2000s; our teenagers, and younger). These are the five generations of families in our society, and I am surprised how often I meet families where members of all five generations are still living.

The Builders tend to relate at the public level of belonging. After all, they rebuilt the public sphere after WWII; in this country, they (did not begin, but) built up the NHS and state education. But they face a particular crisis: they are well into retirement – not provided for as they had hoped – are no longer ‘running’ the public sphere, and are somewhat lacking in purpose.

Regarding church, Builders tend to relate at the public level of belonging: in formal worship services, in Eucharistic liturgy. It is around the edges of public belonging – coffee after the service - that they engage with social belonging, that allows personal belonging. Builders held their ground against Hitler, and they will bloody well resist the vicar’s attempts to push them towards other structures of social, personal and intimate belonging.

The Baby Boomers are the largest group in our society, and they are getting older, beginning to retire from leadership in the public sphere in significant numbers. The older Boomers are the parents of Gen X, and were certainly perceived by their children to be entirely self-centred, in particular manifested as career-focused – the feminist movement arguably guilty of making women as self-centred as men instead of challenging male self-centredness. And Gen X has undoubtedly been damaged by the massive rise in divorce among older Boomers. In contrast (in response?) to this generational hostility, younger Boomers have a tendency to want to be friends with their Gen Y children, to be seen more as peers than parents, to defer to their children.

Boomers tend to relate at the social level, in part because they have greater self-confidence than younger generations (and to a degree being more comfortable in your own skin comes with age), and in part because social networking is the way to get ahead. Moreover, where personal and intimate belonging has not lasted, the sphere of social belonging is the context for getting back in the game. Regarding church, Boomers created the informal and seeker-sensitive approach.

I have already reflected on Gen X and Gen Y. Gen Z are digital natives: that is, not only is digital communication – texting, instant messaging - entirely natural to them, but non-digital communication – unmediated face-to-face conversation – is increasingly alien to them. (Cultural commentator Marshall McLuhan observed that any technology moves from enhancing human communication to obstructing human communication, and this is a case in point: what is new, perhaps, being the speed with which digital technology has moved from enhancing communication to obstructing it.)

Therefore, Gen Z are disenfranchised from public, social, personal and intimate belonging, replacing all with virtual parallel existences. (Japan and South Korea lead here where the West is following: there, increasing numbers of Gen Y adults have digital relationships with virtual girl/boy-friends - that is, they are not even the virtual projection of an actual human being.) At the same time, those who are excluded from the virtual world for socioeconomic reasons are caught in a physical landscape empty of opportunity, and express their frustration through anti-social behaviour: vandalism, public drunkenness, car theft, intimidation...

If Builders relate most naturally at the public level, Boomers at the social level, Gen X at the personal level, Gen Y at the intimate level, and Gen Z at the point of relational isolation: if there are strengths and weaknesses to each of these biases (except isolation): and if we need to be able to belong at every level in order to be fully human – indeed, in order to live at all – then perhaps, just perhaps...we need to learn from each other, to help one another, to challenge and to encourage one belong to one another.


  1. Anonymous3:34 am

    After reading a digesting this post Andrew, I fully agree with the final paragraph. So how do we develop this in our community?
    Food for thought once again Thank you

  2. Good question! I think getting conversations going, about all four spheres of belonging, in all four arenas, is a good starting place...