Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
If you click on this link and submit a current photograph, you can see what you will look like in the future. It’s called “age progression software” and was developed by forensic experts to help find people who had been missing for years. Another tool you can use to get a peek into the future is to read “Generations: The History of America’s Future” by William Strauss and Neil Howe. While their methodology of dividing populations into generations and then subdividing each generation into four basic types — Civic, Idealists, Adaptive and Reactives — has been controversial, it has also been helpful as a way to understand the generational changes that affect politics, religion, economics, values and most every other segment of our lives.
For example, when you combine a particular generation — say, Boomer — with the word that describes the generation — Idealist — then you gain a much fuller picture of not only who they are but, even more interesting, what a Boomer might be like when they are older. What Boomers will be like as they age is an issue of personal interest for me as one on the leading edge of Boomers — along with Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and the late David Bowie.
Twenty-five years ago when I first read “Generations,” I underlined a number of passages that Strauss and Howe proposed would be the nature of old age for us. Some of what they describe is unsettling:
“Boomers will demand sweeping moral authority…and will retain national leadership until they reach advanced old age and see their values firmly locked in place. Boom leaders will exercise their greatest political influence unusually late in life.”
“Boomers will perceive a crisis of ‘darkness and peril’…and will respond to domestic and international challenges in ways unimaginable today…This generation’s quest for righteousness will extend globally in elderhood. Like other older Idealists, Boomers will not instinctively dislike authoritarian regimes; indeed they will be quite authoritarian themselves. The question they will ask is whether such authority is exercised for good or for evil.”
“Great peril might arise if Boomers find themselves confronting old religious fundamentalists whose inner zeal matches their own…The major question — indeed, the one whose answer may decide whether Boomer leadership will end in triumph or tragedy — will hinge on this generation’s capacity to restrain (or let others restrain) it’s latent ruthlessness. Historically, aging Idealists have been attracted to words like ‘exterminate’ and ‘eradicate,’ words of apocalyptic finality. It is easy to picture…these righteous Old Aquarians as the worst nightmare that could ever happen to the world.”
On the other hand, the authors predicted an alternate and historic opportunity for aging Boomers to be reflective wisdom-figures entrusted with the culture’s deepest values putting them in a position to “guide the nation, and perhaps the world, across several painful thresholds. If Boomers fail at this mission, history suggests that no other American generation will be commensurately empowered for the remainder of the 21st century.” That’s a serious responsibility.
I know not everyone reading this is an aging Boomer, but I would encourage all of us to think about how we want to be remembered. What will have been our contribution? Will we be those willing to put the country and world at risk for an apocalyptic vision of righteousness and the eradication of evil? Will we be the strident generation the authors label as “increasingly pompous, intolerant, uncompromising, snoopy and exacting of others”? Or, hopefully, will we be the mentors and encouragers of the next generation looking to us as elders for perspective and spiritual maturity? Will we hang on to our positions and demands for “sweeping moral authority” or will we instead invest in the dreams and aspirations of the upcoming greatest generation?