“Question Authority.” Those were the words on the famous bumper sticker that defined the baby boomer generation—my generation. It was clearly meant to be confrontational and a game changer. The purpose was to get the attention of the ruling generation with a strong message: the status quo will not be tolerated. A powerful slogan infused with optimism and idealism and defiance.
The baby boomers did not want to be marginalized. They wanted to be part of the process right now: “Talk to us, person to person. Stop treating us as though we are unimportant.” Baby boomers believed we could change the world.
But how could that have happened? It would have taken an open-minded senior generation, and by and large they were not an open-minded group. They had come thorough great struggles—the depression and World War II. They resented the new generation not having sacrificed anything, while expecting to be included. It didn’t seem just.
We were young and impatient and wanted something—opportunity. It’s what all young people want. Of course, age really has nothing to do with it. We all, regardless of age, want and need opportunity, but opportunity by itself is not enough. It has to be paired with guidance, a tricky almost old-fashioned word, one the older generation liked and that the younger generation thought sounded too controlling and patronizing.
Perhaps a better word is mentoring. The concept of mentoring reaches back to the days of the apprenticeship when you learned at the hands of the master, with promise of a future based on experience and respect. This was a hands-on model, a direct passing on from one generation to the next, which worked in a simpler society where concrete tasks drove the economy. Can it work well in the modern world? It certainly seemed a broken concept during the question authority days.
Because education is so formal today, apprenticeship happens far less than it did. Young people today, however, do need what young people have always needed, both opportunity and mentoring. They go hand in hand. And it is the job of the senior generation of any era to provide this to the younger ones. That doesn’t mean to just hand it over. It means being responsible to the present and the future, while being mindful of the past. It means being both careful and generous.
Most young people beginning an adult life don’t know the ropes. Why would they? They are filled with ideals and ideas. They believe in their future and want to be successful in life. But they need help developing a well-grounded sense of agency. Everyone does.
Mentoring is an attitude that was certainly lost in the rubble of the baby boomer’s coming of age. I do not blame the senior generation for that, any more than I blame us for not doing the same with the next generation that came along. We didn’t receive it and we didn’t give it, for reasons too complex to enumerate here.
Mentoring is not so much a concrete task, the way it was in times past. It’s more subtle, an attitude. It means being on the lookout for the younger ones, remembering what it is like to have bravado and uncertainty living so closely, side by side. It means being generous with time and attention. It means clarity of purpose—I am doing this for the good of one person and all of humanity. Does that sound too dramatic or noble? It is neither. It is practical and kind . . . and is the right thing to do because it is something we all need.