Cross-generational Adulting – by Tom Bissonette

A Boomer’s plea for unity

I was a bit put off when I first heard the term “adulting”, the traditional noun turned into a verb. It sounded like an excuse young people were using to buy themselves more time to step up to the demands of being a “grownup.” I grew tired of hearing how hard adulting is. I briefly had the same mindset as the other old guy who complained about the “Peter Pan Syndrome” of today’s youth in a TikTok video which set off the viral “OK Boomer” retort on Instagram and other social media. Since I was still somewhat indoctrinated in traditional views of human development, “adulthood” was a landing place after certain basic criteria were met. One’s chronological age plus official legal status as an adult was usually enough to claim it, maybe with a modicum of independence thrown in.

I have recently concluded that ‘adulting’ is a more accurate description of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the real world, if we define it as behaviors such as reasonableness, responsibility, and cooperation, rather than a stage of life. If we look at it honestly, we have adult moments and other moments that look more like those of a child or adolescent. These vary greatly between individuals. Lately, especially in politics and situations that demand leadership, we seem to be always looking for the illusive “adult in the room”. 

Some of this uneven performance of adultlike behavior is generational. Boomers, the so-called “Me Generation,” earned a reputation as selfish and impatient. We want what we want the minute we want it! This is manifested more than ever in commerce and politics. We, along with younger generations, have made Amazon a juggernaut and have overburdened the USPS because we cannot wait for the next new item; even setting up cameras at the front door to alert us the minute it arrives and protect our new stuff. Eons ago they worried about pirate ships and making port but, today, we fret over pirates invading the porch.

We’re impatient with each other too. We complain about a country divided, but we have always been a divided country. The difference today is that both extremes of the political spectrum demand to have their way immediately, rather than take the time and effort to collaborate and find more lasting solutions. Democracy was not supposed to include incessant temper tantrums in the legislative body. But now, if childish screeches don’t work, there’s always the (once sparingly used) filibuster — akin to a legislative toddler holding his breath, hoping the parents cave.

This conflict is not unique to this era, and political divisions, and partisanship, are not the only impediments to solving society’s problems at this juncture. The generational divide is getting wider, and the tension is rising. The generations that followed Boomers adopted some of the bad habits but inherited a diminished sense of security about the future to boot. This has led to frustration and resentment towards a system perceived as mismanaged by Boomers – one that seems to have failed younger generations as they reached for the American dream. Our social and economic problems are so daunting that many wonder whether democracy itself can deliver the goods. Democracy is slow, even when it’s working, but to young, digital natives, it seems like it’s on life support.

Younger people resent us for a reason. We left them with a mess. We shook up the world with the idealism of our youth and our technological advances. Now the world is shaken by our inability to harness the progress we ushered in. We created expectations for ourselves and our successors that cannot be met. In a matter of decades, we transitioned from “make love not war” to endless wars, unbridled greed, and hateful division. Social and technological changes were piecemeal and not guided by any coherent vision. Then, the situation was exacerbated as so many of us at once joined the “I got mine” club.

The pandemic highlighted these generational divisions when many, especially on the right, wanted to let the old and weak die off and let herd immunity prevail. Beneath that sentiment was a survival instinct based on a belief in scarcity. It’s the same mindset that fuels the debate over the viability of social security. Yes, social security is probably underfunded, but mostly because there is a low cap. This is yet another example of ‘I want to get my pieces of the pie now, even if none remains for you’.

Indeed, shortsightedness, the antithesis of adult foresight, has become the norm for most of us. We have become so reactive and impatient that our urban dictionaries can’t even agree on whether a “hot minute” is a long time or a short time. We are the proverbial monkeys with our hand in the jar, except now we are on a timer.

Let’s face it — we cannot recover from the current civil unrest and our fragile economy without cooperation within and between generations. Boomers and Gen Xers have the resources and still hold much of the political power, but the “me” generation and the “lost” generation are unlikely to repair the damage because they have credibility problems. Yet, although it seems to have been dormant lately, they possess the knowledge about how to get things done. Millennials and Gen Z have the energy and technical savvy needed to visualize and engineer the future. It’s their future by the way, not ours.

Any group seeking to improve society should be represented by virtually all age categories. We must do this now, because the generation gap is fast becoming a generation wall, and it’s getting higher and deeper every day. It makes sense that this kind of intentional collaboration is more essential in this new century because we live longer, and change is accelerating. The lifespan of current and previous generations encompasses a much longer overlap, thus the level of intersectionality has increased dramatically.

Progress always starts with overcoming biases and stereotypes. One such bias is the belief that wisdom only accumulates with age. For us older folks to partner with youth, we need to redefine it. We usually think of wisdom as an accrued benefit of experience over the lifespan, but this assumes that what we learn is always going to be relevant, and that once we’ve learned it, we never lose it. Some researchers cast doubt on these assumptions and strongly suggest that wisdom may be more closely correlated with the quality of experiences, not mere quantity. They also note that wisdom is impacted by other cognitive and psychological influences. It’s obvious that at least a small number of young people are wiser than some older adults, but is this ratio changing? The picture becomes even cloudier if wisdom is intermittent and domain specific as some additional research suggests. Hence, we could be wise in some areas of life, but not in others. We could be wise at some points in time, but our wisdom may have a shelf life as new worlds unfold. 

Our problems are too serious and too big to quibble over which generation has the best answers. We need to stop looking for that mythical adult in the room and start making room for adult posturing and behavior for everyone. We can accomplish that by including all generations and the best ideas and energy they can bring to the task. Cross-generational adulting may be the only means to a viable future.

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