This is the text of a “Thought for the Day” I gave at the St Endellion Easter Festival last week.
I want to talk this morning about generations. There are three reasons for my choice of topic.
Firstly, one of my favourite things about this festival is its multi-generational character. In a world where the norm is for us to segregate ourselves by age, Endellion is a breath of fresh air: a place where cross-generational friendships can flourish.
My second reason for choosing generations as my theme is that I’m rather conscious of my age. You don’t normally get invited to give a thought for the day until you’ve had a few more years to accumulate some wisdom than I’ve had. So I feel a kind of duty to speak as a member of the so-called millennial generation –those of us born between 1980 and the mid-1990s.
We’ve been in the news rather a lot recently, us millennials. Journalists love writing about generations, because a generation is such a huge and diverse cohort of people you can write pretty much whatever you like. In this country alone there are almost 14 million millennials. Globally, we number about 1.8 billion.
Time Magazine famously called us “Generation Me, Me, Me”. The New Yorker says we’re “the most indulged young people in the history of the world.” The Guardian, summing up the critical press we get, recently wrote that:
“Millennials are accused of being lazy, self-involved, cosseted, politically apathetic narcissists, who aren’t able to function without a smartphone and who live in a state of perpetual adolescence, incapable of commitment.”
The underlying message of the critical press millennials get is that we just need to grow up and start behaving like responsible adults. The Financial Times scolded us recently for spending our money on holidays rather than saving towards a pension. I have to admit I’m guilty as charged on that one, given that at the age of almost 27 I’ve never paid into a pension plan but I have just quit my job to go travelling around Europe for 4 months.
But can you really blame us? Many of us graduated into a recession and, even if we’ve been lucky enough to get a foothold in the working world, we’re faced with the prospect of everything we know being turned on its head at any moment. The World Bank estimates that, over the next decade, more than a billion young people will enter the global labour market, but only 40% of them will work in jobs that currently exist. Who’s to say whether pensions will even exist as a concept by the time we reach our 70s.
So there is ample justification for the feelings of instability and uncertainty that underpin many of the choices millennials make. We are indeed stuck in a state of arrested development. Commentators sympathetic to the plight of “generation rent”, as we’re often called, argue that the reason for this is financial. It’s not that we’ve been molly-coddled and over-indulged; it’s simply that we can’t afford to hit the basic stages of adulthood – like buying a house, getting married or having children – all things my grandparents had done by the time they were my age.
But then, the world today looks very different to the one my grandparents came of age in 60 or 70 years ago. When my grandparents were born, there were approximately 2 billion people on the planet. By the time I reach 65, there may well be 10 billion. Providing that many people with all the things we think of as basic rights – food, shelter, education, healthcare – will be an almighty task.
And then there’s the impact that 10 billion people will have on the earth itself. Many scientists claim we’ve already entered what they call the Anthropocene Era – a new epoch in which we, humans, are the dominant force shaping the earth’s ecosystems and geology.
Up until the late 80s, the word millennial was used primarily in the context of millennialism – the belief that Christ’s second coming will be followed by a thousand year golden age in which he’ll reign on earth. I sometimes wonder if this explains the high expectations some people have of us. The FT worries that we’re frittering away our cash rather than saving for old age; saving the planet is the rather more profoundly daunting cross we have to bear.
Climate change is the challenge for my generation and, if we don’t get it right, the appropriation of a label associated with the apocalypse may turn out to be very apt.
I recently read a piece by the environmental journalist Andrew Revkin in which he recalls a line he heard at a meeting in the Vatican in 2014. One of Pope Francis’s top advisers, a cardinal from Honduras whose name I won’t attempt, said this: “Nowadays, man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”
There’s that idea of arrested development again.
I’ve heard a similar refrain from others. The lady who’s been my boss for the last 4 years talks about the gap between cleverness and wisdom. We – and I’m talking about humanity as a whole now, not just millennials – are certainly very clever. (This may be especially true of millennials: we’re the most educated generation in history – note I didn’t say best educated. 41% of 25-34 year olds in rich countries today have been through tertiary education, up from 26% in 2000.)
Our knowledge builds cumulatively from generation to generation. Sometimes a genius, like Newton or Einstein, comes along and runs ahead for a bit. But eventually the field catches up and overtakes them.
Wisdom doesn’t work like that. We don’t seem to be able to pass it on and keep building cumulatively in the same way. We’re always back at square one; ethical children.
You could say that wisdom is timeless, whereas cleverness is time-bound. You wouldn’t get very far today armed with Charles Babbage’s insights on computing or Leonardo Da Vinci’s on aerodynamics.
But if it’s an ethical rather than a technical education you’re looking for, the past remains a goldmine. The teaching of wise leaders – from Jesus to Nelson Mandela, Confucius to Gandhi – doesn’t lose its relevance over time. That’s why we still come to church.
Often there’s wisdom to be found closer to home too – in the role models we look up to, the parents or grandparents we admire.
Which brings me, at last, to my third reason for choosing generations as my theme this morning.
Since last Easter, the two remaining grandparents I had at that time have both died. I was lucky to have a good relationship with them both – indeed with all four of my grandparents – and to spend time with them right up to their final weeks.
Since their deaths, I’ve reflected quite a bit on my relationship with my grandparents and what I learned from them. In a funny way, I think I’m only beginning to truly appreciate the wisdom inherent in the way they lived their lives now – now that they’re no longer here saying stupid things, or watching TV with the volume on full, or winding the rest of us up.
At my grandfather’s memorial service, his daughter/my aunt recounted something he’d said shortly before he died that’s really stuck with me: “as I totter towards my 90th birthday,” he said, “I look back on a life that’s been frequently happy, always interesting and occasionally important.”
The more I’ve turned them over in my head, the more I think those words contain quite a bit of wisdom about how to live life well. It’s the balance of the three elements that I most admire.
Take happiness first. Of course, as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, we should be free to pursue it. But the belief that happiness is attainable at all times does more harm than good. Happiness is a by-product of other things in life, not a destination we can plot a course directly towards. So frequently happy is pretty good going.
Interesting is a different matter. There’s no excuse for being bored by life. Of course, it helped that my grandfather really had lived an interesting life. As a journalist and politician he witnessed up close events that now fill the pages of history books. He was in the British Army in Palestine when Israel was created in 1948. In 1956, by now a war reporter for The Sunday Times, he hooked up with his old regiment to witness first-hand the British invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. He was a Tory MP for 35 years, had a brief ministerial career and relished having a ringside seat for the key political events of his time – from the last Referendum on Europe to the fall of Margaret Thatcher. He once shared an office with James Bond author Ian Fleming, had dinner with the Queen, socialised with cabinet ministers and newspaper editors. Throughout his life he travelled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US – just months before he died at the age of 89 he took a trip to Sri Lanka.
But the specifics of his life are beside the point. At a more fundamental level, I learned from him that we live in a world too full of wonder, excitement and new possibilities for there to be any justification for boredom. So we should strive always to be interested.
And finally important. “Occasionally important” was how he summed up his life. Going through his papers, I’ve discovered a man of greater convictions than the one I knew.
In his old age, my grandfather cultivated a deliberate eccentricity. In reflecting on his political career he always chose to highlight, almost self-mockingly, trivial accomplishments as his proudest achievements.
He would wax lyrical about how he introduced red routes and removed the cap on footballers’ wages. He never mentioned how he’d campaigned on behalf of the Vietnamese boatpeople. Nor did he talk about his work as a junior minister for Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.
Reading his papers, I discovered for the first time a man who’d been distraught when he lost his ministerial post in a cabinet reshuffle in 1981 – not because he liked power for power’s sake but because he genuinely thought he was doing important work.
So he had convictions but wore them lightly. He preferred flippancy to worthiness. He achieved occasional importance but was never self-important.
Did he live a good life? That’s debatable. He did good and bad. But he certainly lived life well.
And perhaps that’s what we millennials should aim for too. To chart a course between worthiness and cynicism in the face of all that’s wrong in the world. To find a middle way between profligacy and prudence in the face of an uncertain future.
So my thought for the day is this: if we millennials are to find the wisdom to rise to the existential challenges we face then we must have the humility to look to the example of previous generations for guidance. As ethical toddlers we can at least learn from those older children who’ve taken a few more steps than us.
My grandparents may have been eccentric towards the end and, certainly, they made mistakes, but there is precious wisdom in their experience and approach to life. Wisdom that I will cherish for a long time to come.
So make sure you talk to someone of a different generation at coffee this morning. You never know what wisdom you might uncover.