by Joel Dylhoff
Welcome to the information age. As the baby-boomer generation ages, my generation, Generation X, is beginning to establish itself as the next generation. So far this has not been a particularly comfortable passing of the baton.
Welcome to the information age. As the baby-boomer generation ages, my generation, Generation X, is beginning to establish itself as the next generation. So far this has not been a particularly comfortable passing of the baton. It has been antagonistic. We are portrayed as media-saturated and overstimulated. We have short attention spans. We are dropping out. We do not care. We are networked. We are wired. We are technologically savvy. We are bored. These fingers are being pointed at us by the boomer generation.
As a training group, and as a mission, we need to address my generation. The marketers will tell you that to get our attention will require the latest technological wizardry, an edgy message, short sound bytes, cutting-edge graphics and animation, and the ability to deliver your ideas in short bursts of thought. Above all, it will need to be perceived as cool by the majority, which means bringing ideas from the fringes and marketing them to the mainstream. Already Generation X is beginning to arrive in TEAM. We comprised most of TEAMServe’s summer orientation. Long-term TEAM will be overrun soon. Now is the time to engage Generation X, and if you think we’re tough, wait until you meet Generation D (for digital). They will make my generation’s networked lifestyle look feeble by comparison.
Generation X embodies what it means to live in the information age.
My wife reads her Bible on a PDA. I read programming books for fun. Generation X has more information available to it than ever before, provided to them through the Internet. Music tastes include small bands from countries never visited. Research can be done entirely online. Degrees can be earned without attending school, increasingly from good schools. In addition, these degrees may be earned from schools not even in the same country. My generation is a mobile generation. We are free agents, and think and act like ones (see http://reason. com/0110/fe.dp.schools.html for more information). We have little allegiance to corporations or educational institutions. Many of us dislike the big businesses that the boomers before us made great. The world is our job market (http://ericacve.org/docs/genx.htm). Our most permanent address is an e-mail address.
The connection made possible via the Internet to its ocean of information has provided a wealth of opportunities. I can take classes through the University of Iowa and study intercultural communications with a partner university in Finland. I can earn an MBA, a degree in graphic design or one in Reformation History online. I can read about the news in the US in a foreign newspaper and step outside my cultural skin to see things from another perspective. I can job hunt in Europe, Asia or Australia without ever traveling there. I can give up buying books, and start searching for them in online libraries. There is, however, the very real risk of drowning, and Generation X knows it. Remember The Matrix (www.whatisthematrix.com)? That was my generation’s statement about the information age. The downside of the information age is the risk of falling into information noir.
Generation X will probably be able to tell you about the latest bombing in Israel before you are aware that it happened. However, we may not know the political effects it will have, or the reasons it occurred. We may know the what, but we may not know the why. In our sea of information, organizing principles run the risk of being reduced to just one more piece of jetsam. Because there is so much information, and many pieces of it have worldviews attached to them, we sort what comes in—immediately. Some information we need to master, some we need to know about and some we only need to be able to find again. This is true of all messages that we receive. Consider Generation X as a human library system. If you need to find something, we’re your people.
This sorting mechanism is necessary to avoid being overwhelmed with information. All information that comes in is viewed with a pragmatic skepticism. If you forward us a story, we will probably check its authenticity before passing it on (www.snopes. com). While you check our background references, we’ll take a look at yours. My generation’s favorite question is “What’s the point?” You accuse us of dropping out or not caring. We’re just being careful about what and to whom we listen. It’s like applying what the boomers told us about our music to everything else.
Now, what about those principles we were talking about? The underbelly of Generation X is its potential to slide into information agnosticism. Of all the information we receive and have access to, what pieces are important? What pieces are truly significant? If you want to communicate to my generation, you have to tell us why what you want to say is important. Technological flash won’t get our attention. Chances are, you contracted one of us to build it for you. As boomers, you will find that you can communicate best with my generation by answering the question, “What’s the point” early on in a conversation. Answer this question, and you have our attention. Time is a precious commodity to my generation. If you convince me that something’s worth my time, however, you will suddenly find my attention span is no longer a problem.
Our information skepticism is connected with relational optimism. Because we are mobile, we have developed the ability to form friendships more rapidly than the boomers and to value them highly. My generation has friends literally around the world with whom we keep in contact via instant messaging or e-mail. These relationships are highly valued. It is as if we have never gotten out of the adolescent desire to make friends and be popular. Being a generation of free agents fosters this. We are a nomadic generation. We never know when we may have to call on the help of a friend in Finland, or be asked to host a friend’s friend from Rwanda as they pass through.
As a result of this networking, we look to the people feeding us with information to provide us with clues about its reliability. If we know and trust the person giving the information, we are more likely to listen. If we don’t know you, no offense, but we’ll be skeptical. Our home environment, the Internet, is filled with ads. Banner ads are everywhere. In much of the information in which we traffic there are underlying messages and themes, usually aimed at our cash. My generation trusts its friends, because they can usually be counted on not to rip us off. Big corporations, while providing important products, can usually be counted on to go for our gold, providing my generation with another reason not to trust them. Nonetheless, we need both the information they provide and the products they produce. Just stay at arm’s reach, and keep your hands where I can see them.
This relational approach to life has its downside as well. If an unknown person talks to a Gen Xer about objective truths (including theology) they risk being tuned out because they are unknown. There is, however, one attribute which ensures that my generation will give them the benefit of the doubt—age. Generation X respects age and the wisdom and maturity it implies. We will listen to the oldest generation give us instruction on principles attentively and respectfully. Leave the practical application of those principles to us. We can figure out how to get things done. Credibility and age are intertwined. Generation X wants to hear from the oldest what principles they used to focus and organize their own lives. Older people have credibility the boomers don’t have. They are the sages who have been there, done that and taken a few on the chin in the process. They’re not selling anything. They don’t have anything to prove.
Generation X is different from the boomer generation. We’re skeptical. We’re networked. We’re mobile. We’re information moguls. We need to hear about principles, we need to find focus and we’re hungry for relationships. But be assured we haven’t dropped out. As church members and as a mission, we need to consider the changes implicit in the transition from the boomer to the Gen X lifestyle and work to prepare Gen Xers to take the lead in carrying the faith to the next generation. But doing this means doing things differently.
I propose several different ways of overcoming this hurdle. First, cross-generational learning groups need to be formed which will provide the oldest generations the opportunity to speak about the principles they have learned to Gen X. By principles, I mean things such as prayer, dealing with disappointment, trusting in God when things are really going poorly and dealing with difficult people and relationships. Gen X wants to know how things were done “back then.” We want to hear stories of faith and hope from people whose only agenda is to see my generation do a good job being caretakers of the faith we have been entrusted with. We need encouragement.
Secondly, work teams should be formed which intentionally seek to cross generational lines. Nothing is lost, and there is much to be gained in consulting both the age and experience of the older generations and using the vigor and strength of Gen X to accomplish projects that neither would have the ability to complete on their own. Consult the older generation to learn what problems should be watched for, and ask Gen X about new strategies for getting things done.
Finally, ignore what you’ve heard about the older generation, and what you’ve heard about my generation. The older generations claim they have nothing to offer. Whether that is out of false humility, or an unawareness of their strengths, is difficult to tell. In any case, they are wrong. The older generations have an abundance of wisdom that younger generations lack and it needs to be drawn upon. My generation, it is said, has dropped out. This is not true. We’re here on the sidelines, looking for ways to get involved. We need a sense of direction to channel our efforts. By working together with the older generations, Generation X is poised to make its contribution to society. Anyone want to help?
Joel Dylhoff is currently catching up on all the reading he didn’t get done in school and sharpening his interest in emerging Web technologies and the relationship between the American church and its surrounding culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
EMQ, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp. 446-450. Copyright © 2003 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.