Friday, August 24, 2007

Generational Musings

The most recent issue of Utne Reader (Sept/Oct 2007) featured a series of three articles discussing the role Baby Boomers can and should play in shaping and changing the world of the 21st century. Boomers are that generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964 who currently makeup 20% of the population. Essentially, the articles centered on the question: Do Boomers have something to offer the younger generation in terms of wisdom and experience, or are they simply a generation of self-absorbed, would be do-gooders, who don’t want to grow up and will be a tremendous financial and social burden on the younger generations behind them? As a Boomer college professor and father of three young adults, and as one who spends a great deal of time around twenty-and-thirty-somethings, I had more than a passing interest in the discussion.

In the opening article, “The New Elders” Eric Utne and Richard Leider propose that because Boomers are working and living longer, they ought to focus on passing along the wisdom of their experiences, both positive and negative. They also propose that Boomers need to listen to Millenials and Baby Busters because they have mastered the world of information. The mixture of wisdom with knowledge could be a powerful combination. Of course, in order to mentor someone, you have to be asked.

That is the issue K.C. Compton takes up in the second article, “You Say You Want a Revolution.” Compton, a woman in her 50’s, recounts all the cultural and societal changes that came about because of the activism of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. She admits that Boomers can be “narcissistic and self-righteous,” but claims that her generation didn’t fail, they just got overwhelmed with all that needed to be changed. Compton goes too easy on Boomers. I remember thinking even in college in the early 70’s that most folks in my generation were shifting from a superficial commitment to change to an all-out embrace of materialism. We didn’t get overwhelmed; we switched sides.

The final article, “Tangled Up in Me” is written by Joseph Hart, a non-Boomer who basically thinks Boomers overestimate their worth and value. He writes, “the generation that exhorted us to never trust anyone older than 30 – then grew up and proved the point by ushering in the long nightmare of social conservatism and permanent war that is our current reality.” Hart’s critique is a bit harsh, as the Reagan era while supported by Boomers, was largely an attempt by the WWII generation to bring us back to an idyllic “morning in America” that never actually existed. Even so, he is correct in that the Clinton and Bush eras have been characterized by war, greed and corruption. Hart’s final word is “a higher road and more challenging practice [for Boomers] would be for them to shut up and listen for a change.” Ouch!

Recently at a conference on social change, I made a presentation on the spirituality of hope for political activists based on some of the writings of Paulo Freire. One participant asked me what gave me hope. Without so much as a thought, I said: “My children and my students.” While I read about how undisciplined and unfocused young adults are, I continually SEE and MEET young adults who are passionate, intelligent, and concerned for peace and justice. I see people who are writing, acting, starting businesses, working overseas, teaching, and raising families in alternative ways. These young adults give me great hope for the future. My own children are exploring careers and life directions pointed at relieving suffering and challenging injustice. As a result, I increasingly find myself sitting back and listening because I think they have great insights that still can make a positive difference in the world.

While it is a time when young adults are stepping up, it’s not a time for Boomers to sit down. I would hope we can learn and grow together and continue to address some of the major challenges that still face us: old, young and in-between.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Irish Reflections

Recently, I spent 12 days in Ireland with my wife and twenty year old daughter. I had never been to the “green isle” before, so this was new adventure. As I understand it, Ireland has experienced an economic resurgence over the past decade, and as a result has emerged as the European vacation of choice for many Americans (according to at least one tour guide I spoke with). For nearly two weeks I was immersed in Irish life and culture, which I found interesting and refreshing. I would like to share four concrete insights that struck me on my trip. Even though they are obviously through the lens of a tourist (for Ireland’s tourist industry is definitely a well-oiled machine), I think there may be some deeper realities to consider.

One thing that strikes any American visitor to Ireland is the cleanliness of the place. Not only are the streets clean and trash picked up, but the air is clear and free of smog, even in Dublin which is a bustling city of over a million people. The parks are beautifully maintained, as if they are golf courses. More importantly, throughout the country there are signs reminding people to recycle and to think in terms of renewable energy. Because the roads are narrow and the gas prices high, people drive small, energy efficient cars. We saw several brands of cars (such as a Nissan Micra) that aren’t even sold in the United States, and we didn’t see one gas-guzzling SUV. During the entire tip I only saw one public restroom that had paper towels to dry your hands; everywhere else there were blowers to dry one’s hands. Instead of environmental responsibility being an individual choice, as it is in the U.S., in Ireland environmental concern is a cultural mandate. I could not help but recognize how arrogant and wasteful the U.S. attitude toward ecological concerns are compared to the Irish.

Closely aligned to their environmental concerns is the sense of connection to the rest of the world. Ireland is a member in the European Union and so our money was in the form of Euros. On the news reports there was this clear awareness that Ireland was part of a larger global community, not only with Europe, but throughout the world. In the city of Dublin banners adorn the light poles that announce that Dublin is a “fair trade city,” thus linking Dublin’s economy to the farmers and producers in developing countries. Almost all the coffee shops we entered sold fair trade coffee and many of the markets had fair trade fruits and vegetables. In this country we often talk about being part of a global community, but we do so only on our terms. If we don’t agree with what the rest of the world desires, be it in military matters, foreign policy, or business, we think we are big enough to simply go it alone. As we are finding out in Iraq, that is a dangerously flawed policy. The Irish, by contrast, have what appears to be a healthy sense of interdependence.

During our time there, the country was involved in the all-Ireland finals for Gaelic Football and for Hurling. For those who haven’t been introduced to these two sports, they are fast moving, high scoring, and exciting to watch, and Irish people get as excited about their sports, as Americans do theirs. I would love to see Hurling (which is sort of combination lacrosse, soccer, and football) come to the United States. One night I sat in a pub talking to older Irish men, and was surprised to learn that virtually all sports in Ireland are amateur. So when 50,000+ folks packed into Dublin’s Croke stadium to see the Hurling Semifinals, they were watching guys who had to go back to work on Monday just like them. I found it refreshing to realize that the Irish players and spectators participate for the love of sport, and the business of sport is a minor concern. While I am sure there is manipulation and corruption at some level, they have not so distorted sport that a few big, fast, brawny guys get rewarded with salaries and accolades that are way out of line with their overall social value, while spectators are endlessly gouged.

Finally, I was struck by the sense of history among the Irish. We visited ruins that went back as far as 7000 B.C., toured castles of the 12 century and saw prisons that held the revolutionaries from the rebellions of the early 1900’s. Now in part this was due to the fact that these sites are featured in the tourism guides, and I was told by some Irish folks that like elsewhere visitors are often more aware of their history than the Irish are. I know that is true for Philadelphia; many local residents have never visited the historic district. Even so, because so many ancient buildings still stand and are still in use, history is just embedded into the way people live. The Irish language is now being taught in school, after almost being eradicated by the English in the 18th and 19th century. Like other countries going through an economic boon, Ireland has experienced an influx of immigrants, particularly from Poland, Russia and Asia, yet even with that there is a sense of rootedness that was interesting. Not only did I get the sense that the Irish are connected to the rest of the world, but they are connected to their ancestors and their past. They have a greater sense of where they have come from.

My buddies at the pub assured me that Ireland has its share of problems. Apparently, the prime minister is involved is in some sort of scandal, and there was evidence of debates over land use and the huge subsidies that are paid to Irish farmers. So by no means do I mean to paint Ireland as a utopia. However, whenever one goes to another country or culture, he/she has the opportunity to see their own culture in a fresh light. That is what happened to me. There is so much more I could say, and you are welcome to look at some pictures we took. But I was struck by what we as American could learn from the Irish; I came away very much touched by their refreshing approach to life in the world today.