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An intergenerational clarity | Moment's Notice


Last updated 7/22/2020 at 2:38pm

"History has its eyes on you." – Lin Manuel Miranda, from "Hamilton"

That line, said my 12- (nearly 13)-year-old goddaughter, Olivia, represents where we are as a nation today, just like it did in the version of early America put to music by the brilliant Mr. Miranda.

Actually, what she specifically said was that it was a line worth keeping as a mantra for her life, demonstrating she is already keenly aware that we can say whatever we want, but in the end, it is how we act toward each other that will determine how our stories are told, and how our world progresses.

2020 has put a glaring spotlight on social, racial, and economic differences in American society, but also the generational splits, and perhaps there is where we most clearly see that 2020 has also shined a light on the excuses we allow ourselves.

In Olivia's eyes, we are obliging her young generation to live in chaos. "I think my adjective for all of this would be 'chaotic'," she said. "I mean, with people going insane about such trivial things as masks or a pack of toilet paper, how could it be any other word?"

She has a point.

It made me wonder, as we attempt to navigate today's many challenges. How do we see through a young person's lens to view history and the history in the making?

Maybe we stop dictating or projecting, we stop contradicting before we truly attempt to understand. To learn, we have to listen.

So I asked Olivia if we could write a column together, describing our generational perspectives of the world we are living in now. I don't know anyone who does not have a very strong opinion about the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, about what is being done (or not done, what is a failure or a step forward).

What seemed to come clear to me is that we (adults) talk and talk, but the clarity of the young mind continues to highlight our inconsistencies, our rationalizations, and the fallout.

"The new virus was detected in December," she said. "They thought it was a small enough outbreak that it could easily contained. By mid-March, we start a quarantine no one expected to last long. Soon, more rules were made, and we saw people fighting for toilet paper."

I remember those months, the denial of the wave coming toward us and the perpetual finger pointing that helped to make the U.S. a worldwide pariah.

Olivia saw it.

"We stayed home for a while, and I took classes online. It's hard to learn, especially in math when I want to ask questions. Nothing has gotten better, and now for eighth grade, I am supposed to only go to school two days a week, or maybe not at all."

Talking to Olivia and other young people about the Black Lives Matter movement, institutional racism, and slavery, is similarly clarifying.

Many in the country have allowed themselves to be paralyzed by participating in a two-sided political debate instead of demanding the policy changes across a spectrum of injustices. Yet Olivia seems to understand that it takes committing to work for long-overdue change.

"A black man named George Floyd was unjustly killed, and less than a week after his death, millions of Americans were walking in the streets calling for justice. Some things were done in history that kept us from making things right much sooner, so reform was approached slowly. Finally, we are entering what is hopefully the last stage for racism to end."

Psychologists and social scientists would say that Olivia is among a cohort of generational peers witnessing dramatic conditions during their formative years that will shape their generational identity. Olivia may not be aware of the specific strengths and shortcomings of her generation, or those that came before, but she is already assuming a Gen Z identity.

She seems to innately understand what researchers are saying – that her (or their) generation is poised to take over the dominant role in culture as it overshadows the baby boomers. (OK boomer, as they say.)

Olivia is also smart enough to know that often people are not really interested in the answers to the pseudo-rhetorical questions they ask.

From the effort she put into working with me on this column, she must have sensed that Gen-Xers like me put a lot of stock in the insightful words of others.


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