The fact that this blog is written by Calvin alumni under 30 has me thinking about what characterizes the current generation of recent Calvin grads. Even more, I’ve begun to think about larger generational groups and shifts. What defines certain generations? How do different generations relate to each other? Is “generation” even a useful category for thinking about things?
Some aspects of the Calvin experience have changed over the generations in form if not in essence. The derogatory slang term “GR biter” had lost circulation at Calvin by the mid-2000s from when my parents were there in the late 1960s. Perhaps the term ‘GRCHS’ pronounced to rhyme with ‘circus’ has taken its place. How many Calvin students today refer to Meijer as “Thrifty Acres,” as my mom still does? Yet, my parents can return to campus and comment on how much certain trees have grown or how my dorm was being built while they attended.
At the college level, though, generations turn over every 4 years. When I graduated from Calvin in 2007, I didn’t have a cell phone, a laptop, or Facebook account. No economic recession or financial crises (global or institutional) seemed imminent. My guess is that was not the case for most of the other writers on this blog.
Yet those of us under 30 belong to the Millennial Generation (or Generation Y) by most measures. The term Millennial was coined by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, who popularized the theory that coherent generations are actually formed by historical events and form repeating historical cycles. Generational transitions often occur in response to national crises or demographic changes (e.g. the onset of the Great Depression, the post-WW2 baby boom, the increased use of birth-control). As groups, the G.I. Generation, the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials correspond to certain archetypal personalities. The hopelessness of the Depression that bred frugality gave way to the optimism and self-indulgence of economic opportunity and American super-power, leading to a sense of entitlement.
Consensus on what characterizes the Millennial Generation is still emerging. U2’s Bono suggested that this generation will be remembered for 9/11, the internet, and the global AIDS crisis. Time magazine’s May 20 issue featured a cover story on Millennials, “The Me Me Me Generation,” with a subtitle calling them “lazy, entitled narcissists who still live with their parents” but also claiming that “they’ll save us all.” (The June 20 Time cover claims that “Service Can Save Us.” One wonders if Time suffers from some soteriological anxiety.) However, I took Time’s “How Millennial Are You?” quiz and scored an “Epic Fail.” Even on the far more substantive Pew Research Center quiz, on which a typical Millennial scored 73, I scored a 34 and later a 42—solid Generation X territory. However, being friends with several Gen Xers, I certainly don’t fit into that category either. Perhaps that makes me a premillennial? No way! I definitely would say I’m an amillennialist, if anything. Theological joking aside, for the vast majority of generations of Christians, the term millennial or millennium would have referred to Christ’s reign rather than Y2K.
The Bible is full of generational references, from the long genealogies to the punishing of the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generations to the declarations of God’s steadfast love, sovereignty, and faithfulness “from everlasting to everlasting” and “from generation to generation.” One of my favorites is in Psalm 145:4, “One generation shall commend your works to another,” because I have received that commendation so clearly from my own parents and grandparents.
Societal generations may or may not align with familial generations. Often they are distinct. On my dad’s side, over the past five patrilineal generations, the average space between generations is an elderly 41 years. My dad was born in 1945, before the baby boom and between historical generations. Thinking of these two kinds of generations, I think it’s much more useful to know that all eight of my great-grandparents were immigrants—that defined a generation. I represent the generation in my family that is leaving the farm.
The presence of previous generations connects us to history as much as the defining historical events that may or may not touch our lives. Knowing my grandfathers, who I am named for, has helped me understand myself more than knowing the baby name trends from the 1980s could. My grandpa Zandstra, who died last year at 102, survived the 1918 flu epidemic and remembered WW1 and the first time he saw an automobile. Many from the generation that grew into adulthood without everyday conveniences like washing machines, electricity, or running water are still alive. And that’s just in the U.S.A.
Older generations can remind us that our hyper-mobility and hyper-connectivity weren’t inevitable or best. I’m thankful for all the inter-generational contact I’ve had. The farther apart generations are spaced, the less this will occur. The mother of a friend recently died of cancer. Until this friend becomes a mother herself, she will be the only living generation in her family. Frederica Mathewes-Green argued at the January Series in 2005 for early child-bearing in order to encourage more generational overlap.
Although I’m skeptical of authoritative pronouncements on generational characteristics and of whether I’ve ever been able to truly understand any individual better based on such stereotypes, they’re still fun and interesting to consider. Much changed (say, musically,) between the release of The Who’s smart and catchy “My Generation” in 1965, when my parents were in college, and Limp Bizkit’s unlistenable song of the same title in 2000, when I was in high school. But some things remain the same. The words of Mary’s Magnificat continue to be sung: “[God’s] mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear him.” Generations continue to call Mary blessed as the mother of the Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David—pick whichever generational title you like. People continue to be adopted by the Father into that everlasting generation of which Jesus Christ is the firstborn. May we all be born from above into that great re-generation.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”