Have you ever heard someone say “OK, boomer”? The phrase, popularized by millennials and Generation Z, exploded across the internet last year after a boomer criticized them in a video on social media. The phrase expresses the younger generations’ disdain for the older generation’s attitude toward them. It’s ignited generational conflict between older and younger adults, and both sometimes feel dismissed and disrespected. But what do millennials need from us?
I’m a boomer, and as my millennial children enter parenthood, this generational conflict is causing my wife Susan and me to reconsider what we’ve passed on to them. Culturally, the growing distance between our generations is painful to watch. Instead of being indignant, we should try to look past what they say to understand what they need. And I believe this generation is craving some relevant, meaningful, life-giving essentials that we are well-positioned to provide if we are willing. Here’s how.
First, we need to understand “OK, boomer” better. Gen Z and millennials have been using it to deflect criticism from older adults (in any generation) who they believe are offensive, narrow-minded, or entitled contributors to the problems that burden their present and future. Some insist the phrase isn’t meant to be mean or offensive, but rather a humorous way to avoid conflict.
Regardless, it’s offended some people, including parents. But that shouldn’t stop us from helping younger generations, even if we disagree with their attitude. Young people’s lives are full of challenges that were unimaginable to us just 20 or 30 years ago. Their culture is fast-paced and unrecognizable to many of us. Their priorities can seem shallow and their beliefs can seem shifty. But we can’t just shake our heads.
Young people’s lives are full of challenges that were unimaginable to us just 20 or 30 years ago.
Some of their pain is self-inflicted, but much of it is comes by the world we’ve created. We owe it to them to do all we can, to choose to not be offended, and to give these thirsty hearts a cold cup of hope and help. Here are four essentials I believe this generation is craving from us.
1. “Understand my emotional needs.”
We must hear what they are saying through what they are doing. Notice how social and digital trends reflect their needs, not just their values. They value easy access to information and entertainment, but they need connection and validation. Resist the urge to jump to judgment. Compassionately consider the cries of their hearts. For example, consider how their intense contradictions make their wobbly world make more sense:
- Acceptance: Be yourself, but be like everyone else.
- Truth: You should believe what I believe because what I believe is true, but also, there is no absolute truth.
- Discernment: Be independent, but use apps, algorithms, and data bent on manipulating what you can explore.
- Have a cause: Make a difference in this world, but follow your own self-centered heart.
- Self-respect: Respect yourself, but sacrifice your dignity for social acceptance and fleeting fame.
- Feels right: Do the right thing, but do what feels good.
- Equality: Take away from others to give to everyone equally, but take nothing away from me.
- Kindness: Treat everyone equally, except the ones you don’t like.
- Relationships: Get connected to hundreds or thousands, but be isolated and lonely.
- Self-confidence: You are amazing, but you are unfulfilled and self-doubting.
- Justice: Stand for principles, but only the principles of the crowd. Never cross the crowd.
- Marriage: Desire it, but don’t pursue it. It gets screwed up most times anyway, so why try?
2. “Be a guide by my side.”
Instead of taking a posture of generational conflict or a clash of cultures, come alongside them to share your journeys together. This requires listening—lots of listening. It also requires discerning their readiness for your own relatable stories of lessons learned, good and bad. Listen first, second, and third. Share fourth.
3. “Be a magnet to me, not a megaphone at me.”
Our young people are craving authenticity. They are drawn to vulnerability and kindness. They are not won over by the loudest or most authoritative voices. By being alongside them, you can earn the opportunity to draw them closer and draw them out. Resist the urge to explain how they “have it all wrong.” Share when you “got it all wrong” as an example they can learn from.
4. “Be patient with me.”
Building these relationships takes time. They will want to see how you deal with their transparency or how you handle your differing perspectives and values. They may even push against you to see if you’ll push back or give up—and they are hoping you won’t give up on them.
If we are willing to do these things, we can begin meeting the critical needs of their hearts. Maybe becoming relevant in this generation is really not much different than in generations past. Haven’t we all needed people who listened to us, came alongside us, and treated us with kindness and patience as we sorted out life? Let’s be that for them.
What else does the next generation need from us? Share in the comments below.