By: Adrian Batten

This Boomer/Millennial business, by which I mean the arbitrary dividing up of people into 18-year cohorts including GenXer’s and now Centennials, is useful in many ways, but… can create as much heat, as it does light. 

A positive aspect of this semantic ageism is to provide a catalyst for people to transcend generational boundaries that have not only always existed, but actually remove some of the venom, presaging the generational war that threatens.

“…the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; …half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” George Eliot 1819-80 , ”Middlemarch”.

A friend of mine, born in the first wave of Boomers, tells me she is moved to form a small group in Bali of women from varying age groups. A talented designer and a woman of some character, but not an inveterate networker or joiner of groups, I asked her why?

“Oh, a number of good reasons and intuitions that have come to me recently”, she said. “But really it is the gifts that people at different stages in their lives have for each other that I see so clearly is what’s needed. Particularly now, when there are so many ways, old and new, that separate us, rather than acquaint us”.

What about men? I continue. Why not involve them?

I wish…” she said and smiled, rather fondly I thought.

“Trouble is I only have so much energy available to me and having men and women together in a group like this make it….” she paused to find the word, “… unwieldy”, she concluded.

“I’d like to see it happen, though. Men need this sort of thing in their own way as much as women do. Perhaps we will do something together , it’d be up to the group. Men can always organise their own groups and we could meet up, who knows.  But then… that does sound a bit like organising an inter-school dance, doesn’t it?”. Again the amused, reflective smile.

Her words must have struck a chord because a few days later I came across a report in an English newspaper, which resonated. Thirteen years ago Romilly Saumarez Smith, an English woman living in Stepney, East London, was diagnosed with a neurological disease that left her paralysed from the neck down. It was a particularly cruel stroke of fate for someone whose life had consisted of making things. Following a long career as a bookbinder Saumarez Smith had turned to jewellery design in the late 1990s.

For five years Saumarez Smith endured in a state of depression and grief, believing she was incapable of ever creating again. What saved her was a strong visual memory and the realisation that she could still design in her mind, to the extent that she could see and tweak her work as if it were on a computer screen. What remained was to find the hands to unlock these creations.

Remarkably she was able to find the way to do this and for the past decade has worked in close collaboration with a contemporary and two younger women, also jewellery designers, forming an intuitionally creative quartet that through description and empathy bring the Saumarez Smith creations into being. It is a remarkable and successful collaboration enriching the creative work of all four women.

Lucie Gledhill, designer and collaborator (left) withRomilly Saumarez Smith (right) and her jewellery designs

“Thank you for that”, said my friend, who has more than her own fair share of health challenges, when I passed the report on to her. “That’s exactly the kind of thing I mean. It is the exchange of energy and expertise between elder and younger that brings these unforeseen gifts”.

There is a dark side to this naming of groups too. The historic impatience of youth who feel the way forward is blocked by their seniors, who hang onto wealth and power, and the resentment of these elders, who fear their own inevitable marginalisation. Add to this the turbo-charged nature of technical progress and the existential threat to our planet we now face, is it any wonder a nasty note of rancour pervades much of the interaction online between Boomers and Millennials?

In the parallel societies, what we have created there is less and less genuine contact between generations. Boomers think Millennials are ungrateful, have it easy, are arrogant and entitled. Millennialls think the Boomers are greedy, self-indulgent  and/or criminally irresponsible. They blame Boomers for all the social, political and environmental problems we are dumping into their lap.

While I’m not a Boomer, as a War Baby I might just as well be, and I reckon the Millennials have got it a lot more right than we have. After all it happened on our watch.The world is a hell of a lot tougher and more complex now than ever it was for Boomers.

The late great historian of post-war Europe, Tony Judt born in 1948, had it right when he said “my generation has been catastrophic”. Columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft  writing in the Guardian observed “if there is any hope at all, it must be that our crappy generation can slink away in shame and let a younger generation see if they can handle things better”.

How was it that after two of the most horrific wars ever fought endured by our fathers and mothers, whose sacrifice had bequeathed us 35 years of unparalleled social progress and broad-based wealth creation, did we blow it in a few short decades to the point we’re at now? How and why did so many of us sell out or acquiesce in the bait and switch cons offered by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the people and organisations that funded them? It wasn’t as if we weren’t warned.

Whether by commission or omission we Boomer men are guilty as charged. Margaret Thatcher excepted, I think Boomer women can be exonerated, busy as they were completing their own emancipation. Sorry, I’m afraid to say that ‘at least we gave you rock & roll’ doesn’t cut it (it’s not true anyway…. most of you were into Elton John or Fleetwood Mac).

Not yet 16, Greta Thunberg at Davos 2019

If there is hope that even at this late stage it may be possible to squeak through without a totally dystopic world following global wars and a 70 percent cull, it is the result of the altogether wonderful sight of a 30-year old Millennial, Dutchman Rutger Bregman, and a 15-year old Centennial Swedish schoolgirl – Greta Thunberg, speaking the unvarnished  truth on climate change and taxation to the tenured sycophants and filthy rich at Davos. Not only did they both speak out at Davos but dished it up straight to Fox News and the UN as well.

Boomers, Millennials… something is shifting, bestir yourselves! If nothing else, go view these four clips on Youtube

After banging on in this vein my friend  said gently, “yes, you’re right of course, but I think what really matters in the long run is for small groups of people of different ages to come together locally to get to know each other, understand and support each other. It’s not about good causes per se, it’s cross-generational, about relating to people you wouldn’t otherwise know, or only know superficially and maybe making a difference to each other. I’m convinced it all flows upward from there.”

Somewhat deflated a quote from another age of great social inequality, in George Eliot’s Middlemarch that seems appropriate comes to mind:

“…the effect on those around is incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

You may reach the author at ParacelsusAsia@yahoo.com