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Richard Kew on Youth & Traditionalism
There is always at least one good article in American Demographics for understanding how we might shape the Church’s mission in response to today’s challenges, and with its description of the “retro-styling” of the Millennial Generation, the February 1999 issue was no exception. According to AD, the new world the rising generations are attempting to make is one that is based on more traditional ideals—the question is whether those ideals are just a fad or style or are something deeper, a longing for or an insight into traditional truths we can nurture until they are deeper.
“Generation Y,” the “Millennial Generation,” and “Echo Boomers” are all names given by advertising types to the generation now in elementary, middle, and high schools, and whose first cohort is starting to invade college campuses. While it is a tricky business to generalize about generations, there do seem to be certain characteristics that predominate with certain cohorts.
The Millennials’ predecessor, Generation X, was born roughly between the assassination of JFK and the mid-1980s. They came into the world as the mood of the American people was turning sour. Some have called them “throwaway” kids: the products of more broken homes, more two-income families, and more television watching than any other generation in history. They have lived with a crime epidemic, a rising consciousness of environmental degradation, the AIDS crisis, and any number of other negative trends. Generation X is the first generation to have had millions of their number aborted out of existence, and the first for whom sensuality is normality.
Their predecessors, the Baby Boomers, thought they could remake the world, and the litter and mess they are leaving behind is not unlike the filth in the fields at Woodstock after the crowds had all gone home. The rising generations have had to live with the negative consequences of this. Xers see themselves as a “clean-up generation,” picking up the mess left in the wake of Boomer profligacy.
The first truly postmodern generation, Millennials are less pessimistic than their immediate elders, reflecting, perhaps, that they were born as America was rediscovering that children ought to be cared for—these are the “Baby on Board” kids. They are team players, and tend to take friendships and relationships extremely seriously. Family is important to them, and rather than kicking over the traces of the past, they honor it, crave it, and are eager to become engrossed in its traditions. A young Catholic Millennial who sat beside me on a plane not long ago told me how much he yearned for the solemnity of the Latin Mass—while at the same time he dressed in a style that probably made his poor mother’s hair stand up on end.
According to AD, the Millennial generation are also increasingly “retro” in their dating and mating styles, their attitudes toward relationships being more like their grandparents’ than the do-your-own-thing approach of their Boomer parents. The early “adopters,” that is, the pioneers of the lifestyle trends of their generation, are starting to embrace a decidedly more traditional set of values in their cultural expressions, and their younger peers are likely to follow them in this.
One puzzled Boomer sociologist is reported to have scratched her head and said, “My 20-year-old daughter won’t live with her boyfriend. . . . She’s talking about marrying him.” Horror of horrors! Meanwhile the old-style wedding industry is just waiting for the bonanza that will accompany the marrying of this young woman and her friends.
“These kids are fed up with the superficialities of life,” reported one article in AD. “They have not had a lot of stability in their lives. It’s a backlash, a return to tradition and ritual. And that includes marriage. It’s all about finding the ‘right one’—as opposed to sleeping around.” The article went on to suggest that we’re “heading for a second coming of family values. And with it boosted sales of white wedding gowns, subscriptions to bridal magazines, and perhaps a future surge in sales of Pampers.”
What does this mean? “This generation is very much into the spirituality of love,” said Kirsty Doig, vice president of Youth Intelligence, a market research and trend forecasting group. “They’re much more optimistic than Generation X. . . . They know they’ll find their soul mate.”
But as befits their experience, as a generation raised in a rapidly changing world that has not given them “a lot of stability in their lives,” their traditionalism and optimism have their own character, which includes a goodly amount of prudence. Adds AD, “Young people may be more mature and careful about their life choices, whether they’re looking for a sofa or shopping for a partner, but not because they’re under pressure from their parents . . . they’re under pressure from the world at large.” They are still sexually active, said David Morrison, president of TwentySomething, Inc., “but they’re terrified of having multiple partners. They have more of the fear of God in them. Having a lasting partner guarantees some safety.”
While this generation is prepared to tolerate what orthodox Christians would probably consider unacceptable behavioral diversity, twice as many of today’s 18-to-24-year-olds believe sex before marriage is wrong as did that age group a decade ago, and the percentage is rising. Furthermore, “this is a very spiritual group,” and more of them than ever are probably going to meet one another in places where kids always used to meet one another in a bygone age—in church, for example.
I wonder what the Boomer mother of Stacey H., a 22-year-old legal assistant/writer/actress from New York, would make of her daughter’s insistence that she will never live with her boyfriend, plans only to marry once, and longs for the good old days of cotillions, socials, and fancy-dress balls? “I pity our times,” says Stacey. “We don’t have big balls to go to with big dresses. You can’t be classy about meeting someone these days.”
In the longings expressed by this young woman, I hear the mindset that has catapulted ballroom and swing dancing, once the symbol of everything young people hated and despised, back into the limelight. There may still be plenty of young people who want to continue shaking their bodies at one another to an infernal beat, in that pre-copulative mating ritual that has passed for dancing for so long, but the romantic antennae of Generation Y are out.
A few weeks ago I found myself talking on a long flight to a senior vice president of Arthur Murray’s dancing studios, who told me that their business is booming as never before. Colleges are finding it difficult to provide enough ballroom classes for their undergraduates. This unexpected dance phenomenon has caught the eyes of the national media, who are already running pieces on young women ransacking thrift shops and secondhand clothing stores for the kinds of frothy confection that haven’t been popular for decades.
The New Environment
But before we hang out the bunting and prepare to do the 1950s over again, let’s be sure that we understand the very different environment in which all this is taking place.
These thoughts originally appeared in an Internet forum I moderate. One member responded with, “I wish I saw near as much hope. What exactly are family values? Do they relate to the gospel of Jesus Christ?” He quoted David Wells’s book Losing Our Virtue, where Wells noted that “our society talks of values in this way because relativism has triumphed and because the constant rubbing against postmodern life has had the almost inevitable effect of emptying us out morally. It is because we have lost our virtue that we are left to talk about values.”
My on-line friend asked: “What virtue is there in being ‘sexually active but . . . terrified of having multiple partners’? I question that they have any ‘fear of God.’ I would suggest something more like fear of AIDS. And what exactly is a ‘spirituality of love’ but another form of Gnosticism, America’s favorite form of Christianity?”
He is right, of course. Living as we do, and as the Millennials do, in a culture that is shaped more by style than substance, this taste for traditional values and activities could very well turn out to be a passing fad, an adoption of certain interestingly old-fashioned styles without any concern for the worldview or values they expressed. Who knows, Hula-Hoops could well come and go again in the next few years. Yet it is worth exploring what such retro-styling might be suggesting.
Looking Beneath the Surface
I would maintain that it tells of a reaction against the emptiness and rootlessness of these wired but shallow and confusing times. I would further suggest that it is the reaction of people fed up with superficiality and instability—not least because they, so often the victims of divorce, have suffered so much from it. These young people have realized that there ought to be much more to life than today’s vacuous social fluidity offers.
It is entirely possible that the kids who are now exploring the externals of saner dating and mating practices could well begin looking much further beneath the surface as they realize that the choices they are exploring have much deeper and longer-term implications. While fear might be the starting point for changing attitudes, it should not take them long to discover that it takes much more than fear to make the desired lifestyle stick. Perhaps this is the point at which they will explore the options offered by the One “whose service is perfect freedom.”
Take the question of marriage, which AD flagged as a chief sign of the Millennials’ return to tradition and ritual. It is all very well to say that you want to be committed to your “one and only” for the whole of your life, but those who have wrestled with matrimony know that there are too many forces within our culture determined to rip even the most committed couples apart. More is needed than love, good fortune, and the will to stick together.
I write these words a few days after my 31st wedding anniversary. To all outward appearances ours is a successful marriage. I have a wonderful wife whom I love dearly, and with whom I look forward to growing old together, should God spare us into old age. However, it has not always been this way. We have had our struggles, the worst of which came within a whisker of destroying us when we hit an unexpectedly fierce rapid that threatened to shake our frail bark apart. We were both Christians, I was a priest, and we shared an undying devotion to our children, but this did not prevent us from encountering turbulence that hurt us terribly and has left lasting scars.
Our story is not unique. Every marriage has its hard times, whatever the good intentions of those who covenant on their wedding day that only death will part them. Ours would have been history had it not been for our shared belief that God’s intention for marriage is that it is lifelong, and that he is able to heal the wounds we knowingly (and unknowingly) inflicted on each other. The rosy good intentions we had at the outset of our life together would have been just that had it not been for the third partner—holy, eternal, and immortal—in our relationship, whose grace enabled us to look beyond the frivolity of subjective romanticism to a love that was far more substantial.
We needed the church too. What helped redeem our marriage were caring pastors and counselors, as well as our own willingness to invest the hard work and dollars necessary to rescue the mess we had been making of things. Had we not been believers who belong to a God whose family provided us with the support we needed, I am certain our relationship would have keeled over when the storms broke across our bows. The concomitant likelihood is that our children would have joined the ranks of the permanently damaged, and we ourselves might have gone on to the serial polygamy that passes for normal in so many corners of Western society.
We in the churches should see the Millennials’ new interest in things traditional as a happy turn of events. Perhaps we are being given the opportunity to assist them not to make the mistakes that have marred the lives of so many of their parents and their older siblings. The Christian community is one of the few entities within our culture that can enable them to lay the foundations of a life together that will transcend the agonies time is bound to throw at it.
Responding to the Millennials
As I think about their yearnings, I find myself wanting to shout from the housetops that we go out and find them, befriend them, and nurture whatever it is that is stirring within their souls. We need to respond to them not only with more and better programs—these the world offers—but also with a loving articulation of the gospel, put in terms they can understand.
Wrapped up within the Millennials’ quest for marital stability is a desire to reach beyond a commercialized culture’s superficialities. Faithfulness to a spouse assumes a whole series of other questions about meaning and values that point to a Creator who has by grace reached out and redeemed us. In today’s climate of mass spiritual curiosity, many answers to life’s mysteries are being touted, many of them at first sight seeming far more attractive than Christianity, but it does appear that the gospel community has often been less than wholehearted in its response to Millennial wondering.
Keep your eyes on this generation. That kid who looks like a young version of Dwight D. Eisenhower with a pierced eyebrow and a tattoo on his shoulder might appear a little odd, but beneath the surface could beat a heart of pure “retro gold.” You might even bump into him ballroom dancing one of these days.
The question is whether this new traditionalism is a long-term trend reflecting lessons learned or a mere backlash against something that clearly did not work. In either case, do we in the churches know how to make sense of it with the gospel message?
Richard Kew serves as an associate priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He coauthored New Millennium, New Church and Toward 2015: A Church Odyssey, and moderates the Toward 2015 Listserve, an interactive on-line magazine.