Don’t Shoot the Millennials: Learn From Them

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Seniors are often saluted for the wisdom they impart through their seasoned bon mots and, more recently, have been tapped by several authors for their secrets to living well.

The unforeseen danger is that the adulation can foster a kind of complacency, a certain smugness, a haughty feeling that only helps fuel the divide between the young and old.

The truth is, young people are gaining on us, so we’d better get used to them. For example, according to population estimates just released this month by the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials, defined as people aged 18 to 34, officially surpassed Baby Boomers (ages 51 to 69) as the nation’s largest living generation.

Beyond just tolerating them, we would be wise to acknowledge they just might have something to teach us.

Adding Old to Young

A bit of personal history: I moved to California a few decades ago, at an age that would now define me as a Millennial. Settling into a workplace mostly populated by people my own age and stage, it wasn’t long before it felt like something big was missing in my life: older people. Seeking both to fill that void and engage in some meaningful volunteer work, I joined The Bay Area Funeral Society. It was an organization of feisty consumer activists focused on fighting price-gouging and other unseemly practices in the funeral industry.

Most members ranged in age from their 70s through their 90s. And in them, I gained the precious inheritance of a few hundred grandmas and grandpas. I befriended Ernest, who had a delightfully painful way with puns and cooked a killer beef stew. I regularly had my clocked cleaned by Fanya, whose amazing ability to recall words found only in Scrabble seemed to get more profound with every sip of sherry she took. And I had the pleasure of spending the day with the engaging and outspoken Jessica Mitford, the muckraking author of The American Way of Death, which nearly single-tomedly reformed the funeral industry, before she spoke at our annual meeting. (She was also an outspoken backseat driver.)

As the years went by, the members of the local Funeral Society began to die off — and very few younger members could be recruited to take their places. Eventually, it closed its local doors and was folded into a national group, Funeral Consumers Alliance, which boasts a website, a staff, and undoubtedly, a membership records system more sophisticated than the alphabetized recipe cards we penned.

But I never forgot the importance and sheer magic that those seniors brought to my life. And now, somehow, I’ve become one of them. The years just sneaked up, stirring another memory — still clear as a bell — of a conversation I overheard my parents having long ago, when they were both 54 years old.

She: “I just can’t believe we’re middle-aged!”

He: “Really? How many people do you know who are 108?”

Adding Young to Old

This new chapter of life also recently spurred a new instinct: the urge to be around groups of younger people. To that end, I became affiliated with a group I learned about after huff-puffing through a Zumba class from the teacher, who also founded it. Sol Sisters is a group of dynamic young women dedicated to serving under-resourced women and girls through various events and programs. I became the group’s legal advisor and helped incorporate it as a nonprofit. Off the record, I give out all kinds of time-tested advice about relationships, career changes, dealing with aging parents.

I soak in the members’ glamour and enthusiasm and just this week learned from them a very important life lesson.

As we were handwringing a bit over the funding for a social services event to be held two weeks later, one group member proposed asking a large local tech company for some financial help. My knees jerked to oppose the idea as I silently ran through a list of reasons: We didn’t have enough information about the company’s philanthropic goals, its procedure for considering donations, whether it had a history of doing so — and if so, the groups it had targeted in the past. There just wasn’t enough time to make this happen. And also a big question: Where did these young women get their cheekiness?

But the ask went out — followed two days later by a check for $7,000. Another individual in the company was so stricken by Sol Sisters’ style and service of spirit that he threw in an additional $2,500 as a personal contribution.

The happy news of the double financial fortune led to some soul-searching: Has the accumulation of years made me overly cautious? Scared? Just plain out of sync with the times? Still pondering all of that — but am now at least determined to guard against the hidebound ways of thinking and being that too often come with age.

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