What is a generation? For one thing it’s an interesting way to think about how it is we relate to one another in our society, and is something the marketing world has capitalized on. Our hope is that in exploring the generational realities of the world we live in we can learn to more effectively minister together across generations.
The idea of a generation is a pretty modern concept. As we now understand them, they date back only as far as the 19th century. Before then the word generation was primarily an “in family” concept: grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren. But as the interconnection of the world progressed and individuals gained identities distinct from their families, broader affiliations were recognized, the most notable being national and generational identities.
Generations emerged specifically from the recognition of youth as a social force of consequence. Not children, not adults, wave after wave of nationally affiliated youth dramatically altered the social landscape across Europe in the early 20th century. Each “youth revolution” had its own distinct character, its own loyalties. Technology only hastened this process and further distinguished one generation from the next.
So today we understand generations as a cohort of same-aged individuals that hold some cultural and social characteristics in common. A generation usually is understood to be a period of about 20-30 years, basically the time it takes for the oldest in that generation to begin to have children of their own. While definitions are hazy and characteristics are often contested, here’s a basic breakdown of common understandings of Generations in the West (Thanks, Wikipedia!):
The Greatest Generation (born 1901-1924)
This is the generation that fought in World War II and came of age during the Great Depression. It is the generation of many politically charged youth movements across Europe.
The Silent Generation (born 1925-1945)
This is a generation too young to serve in WWII but old enough to be strongly formed by the Great Depression as children.
The Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)
This is a generation born into a period of affluence (particularly in the US) following the war, as reflected in its unprecedented numbers. This generation played a huge role in defining “youth culture” as a distinct entity as they came of age in the 60s and 70s, advocating strongly for social reform.
Generation X (born approximately 1965-1979, contested)
As a generation, Gen Xers are strongly affiliated with carrying out the rejection of traditional values and family responsibilities their parents began. They are recognized to be only nominally group affiliated and were formed in part by the end of the Cold War and the Reagan administration in the United States.
The Millenials (born after 1980, contested)
Millenials are the first generation of “digital natives” the oldest of which were introduced to the personal computer as children and the internet as teenagers. They are more culturally similar to the Greatest Generation in group affiliation than Gen Xers. They came of age during the bursting of the Dot Com bubble and were largely formed by the events of and following 9/11. This generation is sometimes referred to as the Echo Boom as children of Boomers, it is again a very large generation.
The concept of a generational cohort is of course pretty hazy when it gets too close to focus on. Thus GenX and the Millenials are the least defined, and the oldest of the generation to follow them are only now becoming adults and have yet to display the characteristics of their age cohort.
As we consider “intergenerational ministry” and how best to do it, it’s important to take into account the cultural and social differences that make each generation unique. Each generation differs in their baseline understanding of the world, themselves, their country, their faith, and their place in the cosmos. There are of course national, regional, and class differences to take into account as well, and there are common developmental milestones they all have achieved, but every generation carves their own path to mature adulthood and to mature faith.
How do we take this variety into account as we walk alongside all generations throughout their faith journeys? How can this common language of generations be fruitful in imagining intergenerational ministry as a reality in our church? Making space for all our identities could be key to allowing each generation to bring their own unique gifts to bear in building the Body of Christ.