Watching the Parkland students eloquently disembowel the gun lobby, commentators have hopefully heralded the rise of “Generation Z” and their adept social-media handling running rings around the rest of us.
All of this prompted my wife to ask the question: What happened to our generation?
I, the native Brit, asked her what she meant. What about our generation?
Where and when I grew up we didn’t name the generations so much. In my teens in the mid- to late-’80s (I think that’s when it was) I have recollections of my church hosting a visiting American speaker who asked “how many Generation Xers” were present in the service. I’d never heard the term before, and neither had most other people judging from the show of no hands that he received. He had to define both that and “Baby Boomer” before he could make whatever his point was.
I knew the words “Baby Boom” from school history textbooks on the end of the Second World War, but the idea that the people born then (in my mind, up to about 1956 or so would probably account for a post-war Baby Boom) constituted some sort of social or cultural group was as alien to me as the idea that I was a member of the same generation as people born in 1964 most of a decade before me.
I not only didn’t think of myself as Generation X, I didn’t even know what it meant.
Cue the Dr. Who music and cut to the present day and I know what Generation X, Baby Boomer and Millennial mean now in the common American vocabulary. Piecing it together from usage wasn’t that hard, though it did require a few minor leaps of imagination. But I didn’t know what my wife meant about “what happened to our generation?”
“As the Generation X church, we were always told that we were a special generation,” my wife informed me. The idea apparently being that since we were the first generation born after the Roe vs. Wade court decision legalised abortion, that we were “survivors”, a “Moses generation” who were destined for greatness. “Greatness” apparently being defined in terms of victory in the American Culture Wars between Christian morality and the advance of the Left.
“What have we actually done?”. We haven’t overturned Roe vs. Wade, or reversed the spread of evolutionism or whatever else the American Baby Boomer Christians told us we were destined to do.
My wife remembers that at the same time she was being told her generation was special and significant, they were being denigrated as “slackers” and chided for being “no shows” to their parents’ Culture War battlefronts.
I opined that I didn’t think this was fair. Who gave the Boomer church the right to set the spiritual priorities of our generation? Maybe God had other plans. What tasks did we set ourselves to accomplish? How are we doing on those?
When she mentioned the “special generation” theory, it sounded vaguely familiar, including the abortion reference. It may well be that this was what that visiting preacher was trying to say, but I have no idea now, of course.
Looking up the different generational names to confirm that I’d pieced together my understanding correctly, I was struck by how much the cultural associations seem to be primarily American. This is understandable; the terms are American in origin. But I don’t really see myself in the Amerocentric Generation X category (subset Christian), and I definitely don’t see the British church of my parents’ generation in the American picture of “Baby Boomer (subset Christian)”.
The Roe vs. Wade decision didn’t actually affect my country, so how that’s supposed to make British Generation X a “special generation” is anybody’s guess, but give the guy points for trying even if he hadn’t thought it all the way through. I like being told my generation has an important spiritual role to play as much as the next person.
Be that as it may, apart from maybe this one guy, I don’t remember the spiritual leaders of my parents’ generation telling us that we were a special and chosen generation. In that, perhaps I missed out, but if it came with a load of baggage and expectations of “here are your targets. Go forth and be good foot soldiers in our war”, I’m just as pleased I wasn’t told I was part of a generation with a powerful destiny.
The fact of the matter is that the Culture Wars of the United States have no real parallel in the British political and spiritual landscape. If there was an anti-hippie counter-revolution in the British church that called for a return to respect for authority and traditional patriarchal values, I’ve never once heard about it. The church in Britain, almost without exception, to this day teaches that God made the world but He probably used evolution to do it. It’s a non-issue and vanishingly few people care. The abortion issue simply doesn’t register on anyone’s set of priorities; certainly not on the priorities of any of the major political parties, for all that there are legions of American Christians who make it their sole defining issue. Homosexuality – yeah, we lost that one in the public sphere. I hope we lost it a little more graciously than the American church are losing it on this side of the Atlantic, but that’s probably a vain hope.
We had other priorities, like Anglican bishops publically proclaiming disbelief in basic Christian doctrine like the bodily resurrection of Christ or the Virgin Birth, in a state church apparently spiritually dead from the neck up.
Maybe God has a special purpose for the American Generation X “survivor generation”. I don’t know. I do think He’s more likely to tell the generation themselves what that purpose is, though, rather than have a destiny imposed on them from the Boomer church’s priorities.
In Britain, many of us believed we were a generation with a special purpose in that we would be the generation who would see the return of Christ, coming on the clouds and in great glory. I’m personally convinced that every generation of Christ’s followers ought to live as though that were true, but the fact of the matter is that we do not know when the Lord will return. I remember many of us setting ourselves the task of finishing the work, completing the Great Commission of taking the whole Gospel to every nation and tribe and people and language, but whether that was just because I was looking to be part of a missions organisation at the time I couldn’t say.
How are we doing on that self-appointed task? Well, it’s not finished yet, but the last few decades have seen significant progress. We’ll find out from the light of Eternity, once the Lord wraps up Time.
Did God set that goal for Generation X, for my generation? I have no idea, but taking the Gospel to every nation seems to me a more directly Biblical goal somehow than “winning the Culture Wars” or “Taking Back America” or whatever. We’re going to obey the last command of Christ. We’re going to be the generation that gets it done. We hope.
Not to disparage the priorities of our parents, but maybe we weren’t showing up to the Culture Wars because we’re focused on the whole world and not just a single country, no matter how spiritually significant that country is (and let’s face it, America has played a huge role in global Christianity, especially in the English-speaking world, and mostly for good not ill).
I honestly don’t know how to analyse my generation’s spiritual contribution. We place far less importance on Boomer priorities of passing righteous laws and legally restraining supposedly anti-Christian groups; we’re cynical about the effectiveness of trying to legislate people into morality, and some of us doubt whether some of these groups are really as dangerous to Christian civilisation as we’ve been informed. But perhaps that was never our fight.
My wife made the comment that our generation never had a huge protest movement. The Sixties (at least in America) had the Civil Rights campaign and Martin Luther King, Generation Z have the nascent anti-gun lobby protests, Millennials have… the Occupy Wall Street movement? I don’t know. But what do we have?
In Britain, what I remember of student protest movements from my generation were the end of the anti-Apartheid protests focused on South Africa, or animal rights (which might be a particularly British focus), or fair trade, or campaigns to end hunger and deal with the cycle of poverty and starvation in Africa.
I have no idea what American students were activising about, but it seems to me that one of the common threads here is that we want justice for the whole world. It’d be interesting to find out whether this carries through to our American counterparts.
But to an extent, because our social and cultural situation wasn’t like America’s, because British Christian Baby Boomers weren’t fighting American Culture Wars, because a lot of our shared experiences weren’t also shared by Americans, I’d expect there to be some differences. I’d actually like to see a Brit-focused study looking at the shared experiences of British members of the different so-called generations. It’s even possible that the demographics look different and the generations are divided up differently; certainly there’s enough uncertainty and dispute as to when precisely one generation ends and the next begins even solely in the US data that it seems clear we’re just drawing arbitrary lines.
Personally I think that encompassing a whole 20-year period in a single sociocultural “generation” may be pushing it; what “shared experience and perspective” is someone born at the end of that period supposed to have with someone 20 years their senior? They could just about be parent and child, for goodness’ sake!
And yet, they’re convenient labels for people of particular ages, and it’s true that the shared experiences of a generation do tend to mould people of a similar age in a similar way. If you’re a pre-teen child when 9/11 happens, you’ll probably react in a broadly similar way to other preteen children, for example, and that will probably be substantially different to how someone who’s an adult at the time reacts.
What happened to Generation X? I don’t know. I never had another generation’s expectations held up as a standard for me to cleave to, but apparently many of my American peers did. How God will judge my generation’s accomplishments is the important question, and right now I’m still back on whether God has a particular task for my generation and what that might be if He does.