Generation X! Are you familiar with this phrase? It is highly probable that you have heard or read the phrase at least once. What does it bring to your mind? Does it provoke fear, confusion, despair, misunderstandings, or is it just another in a long line of such expressions used to label youth? Generation X has quickly entered our vocabulary as an easily recognizable moniker for the children of another definable generation: the "baby boomers." Thus this generation of teenagers also has come to be known as the "baby busters." "Xers" and "busters" normally don't elicit positive thoughts about our youth. Is this a legitimate response? Or are we maligning a significant portion of our population with such terms?
In 1991 a Canadian named Douglas Coupland published a novel entitled Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Coupland's book "is the first major work to take twentysomethings seriously, even if the book is humorous and fictional."(1) Thus he is the originator of the phrase that presently describes a particular generation. But he is just one of many who have given thought to youth culture, both present and past.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, youth became the focus of the burgeoning social sciences. "An intellectual enterprise struggled to redefine what 'youth' was or ought to be. That concept was labeled 'adolescence' and has prevailed ever since."(5) It is especially interesting to note that these early social scientists didn't discover adolescence, they invented it. "Adolescence was essentially a conception of behavior imposed on youth, rather than an empirical assessment of the way in which young people behaved."(6) This is important when we understand that the world view premises of the social scientists "came from Darwinian recapitulation theory: the individual life-course replicated the evolutionary progress of the entire race. Adolescence was a distinct 'stage' through which each person passed on the way from childhood (the 'primitive' stage) to adulthood (the 'civilized' stage). Adolescence therefore was transitional but essential, its traits dangerous but its labor vital for attaining maturity. Squelching it was just as bad as giving it free rein."(7) The fruit of such concepts can be seen in the "lifestyles" that are now so ingrained in our cultural fabric.
Today the descriptions are especially derogatory. "Words used to describe them have included: whiny, cynical, angry, perplexed, tuned out, timid, searching, vegged out--the latest lost generation."(10) Are these terms accurate, or do they reek of hyperbole? As is true with most generalizations of people, there is a measure of truth to them. But we make a grave mistake if we allow them to preclude us from a more complete consideration of this generation. As George Barna has written: "You cannot conduct serious research among teenagers these days without concluding that, contrary to popular assumptions, there is substance to these young people."(11) Having served among and with youth of this generation for many years, I emphatically concur with Mr. Barna. Generation Xers consist of "41 million Americans born between 1965 and 1976 plus the 3 million more in that age group who have immigrated here."(12) Most of them are children of the "baby boomers," who comprise over 77 million of the population. This dramatic decrease in the number of births has left them with the "baby buster" label. Their parents have left a legacy that has produced a "birth dearth" and its accompanying social consequences. There are at least six contributors to this population decline.
First, the U.S. became the site for the world's highest divorce rate. Second, birth control became increasingly prominent with the introduction of the pill. Women began to experience more freedom in planning their lives. Third, a college education was more accessible for more people, especially for women who began to take more influential positions in the work force. Fourth, social change, including women's liberation, encouraged more women to consider careers other than being homemakers. Fifth, abortion reached a rate of over 1.5 million per year. Sixth, the economy led many women to work because they had to, or because they were the sole breadwinner.(13)
So we can see that this generation has entered a culture enmeshed in dramatic changes, especially regarding the family. These changes have produced certain characteristics, some positive, others negative, that are generally descriptive of contemporary youth.
First, they are serious about life. For example, the quality of life issues they have inherited have challenged them to give consideration to critical decisions both for the present and future. Second, they are stressed out. School, family, peer pressure, sexuality, techno-stress, finances, crime, and even political correctness contribute to their stressful lives. Third, they are self-reliant. One indicator of this concerns religious faith; the baby buster believes he alone can make sense of it. Fourth, they are skeptical, which is often a defense against disappointment. Fifth, they are highly spiritual. This doesn't mean they are focusing on Christianity, but it does mean there is a realization that it is important to take spiritual understanding of some kind into daily life. Sixth, they are survivors. This is not apparent to adults who usually share a different world view concerning progress and motivation. This generation is not "driven" as much as their predecessors. They are realistic, not idealistic.(14)
Do these characteristics match your perceptions? If not, it may be because this generation has received little public attention. And what attention it has received has leaned in a negative direction because of inaccurate observation. The baby busters' parents, the baby boomers, have been the focus of businesses, education, churches, and other institutions simply because of their massive numbers and their market potential. It's time to rectify this if we have the wisdom to see the impact busters will have in the not-too- distant future.
Because of "the loneliness and alienation of splintered family attachments" this generation's strongest desires are acceptance and belonging.(15) Our churches need to become accepting places first and expecting places second. That is, our youth need to sense that they are not first expected to conform or perform. Rather, they are to sense that the church is a place where they can first find acceptance. My years of ministry among youth have led me to the conclusion that one of the consistent shortcomings of our churches is the proverbial "generation gap" that stubbornly expects youth to dress a certain way, talk a certain way, socialize in a certain way, etc., without accepting them in Christ's way.
Another important attribute of this generation is how they learn. "They determine truth in a different way: not rationally, but relationally."(16) Closely aligned with this is the observation that "interaction is their primary way of learning."(17) In order for the church to respond, it may be necessary to do a great deal of "retooling" on the way we teach.
Lastly, busters are seeking purpose and meaning in life. Of course this search culminates in a relationship with the risen Jesus. It should be obvious that ultimately this is the most important contribution the church can offer. If we fail to respond to this, the greatest need of this generation or any other, surely we should repent and seek the Lord's guidance.
Pastor: We have a special gathering of college students at our church each Sunday. It would be great to see you there.
Student: No, thanks. I've been to things like that before. What's offered is too superficial. Besides, I don't trust institutions like churches.
Pastor: Well, I think you'll find this to be different.
Student: Who's in charge?
Pastor: Usually it's me and a group of others from the church.
Student: No students?
Pastor: Well, uh, no, not at the moment.
Student: How can you have a gathering for students and yet the students have nothing to do with what happens?
Pastor: That's a good question. I haven't really thought much about it.
Student: By the way, is there a good ethnic and cultural mix in the group?
Pastor: It's not as good as it could be.
Student: Why is that?
Pastor: I haven't really thought about that, either.
Student: Cliques. I've noticed that a lot of groups like yours are very "cliquish." Is that true at your church?
Pastor: We're trying to rid ourselves of that. But do you spend time with friends?
Student: Of course! But I don't put on a "show of acceptance."
Pastor: I appreciate that! We certainly don't want to do that! We sincerely want to share the truth with anyone.
Student: Truth? I don't think you can be so bold as to say there is any such thing.
Pastor: That's a good point. I can't claim truth, but Jesus can.
Student: I'm sure that's comforting for you, but it's too narrow for anyone to claim such a thing. We all choose our own paths.
Pastor: Jesus didn't have such a broad perspective.
Student: That may be, but he could have been wrong, you know. Look, I'm late for class. Maybe we can talk another time, as long as you'll listen and not preach to me.
Pastor: That sounds good. I'm here often. I'll look for you. Have a great day!
This fictitious encounter serves to illustrate how baby busters challenge us to find ways of communicating that transcend what may have been the norm just a few years ago.
Rule #1: Personal relationships count. Institutions don't.
Rule #2: The process is more important than the product.
Rule #3: Aggressively pursue diversity among people.
Rule #4: Enjoying people and life opportunities is more important than productivity, profitability, or achievement.
Rule #5: Change is good.
Rule #6: The development of character is more crucial than achievement.
Rule #7: You can't always count on your family to be there for you, but it is your best hope for emotional support.
Rule #8: Each individual must assume responsibility for his or her own world.
Rule #9: Whenever necessary, gain control and use it wisely.
Rule #10: Don't waste time searching for absolutes. There are none.
Rule #11: One person can make a difference in the world but not much.
Rule #12: Life is hard and then we die; but because it's the only life we've got, we may as well endure it, enhance it, and enjoy it as best we can.
Rule #13: Spiritual truth may take many forms.
Rule #14: Express your rage.
Rule #15: Technology is our natural ally.(18)
Now let's consider how parents and other adults might best respond to these rules.
© 1997 Probe Ministries International
1. William Dunn, The Baby Bust: A Generation Comes of Age
(Ithaca, N.Y.: American Demographics Books, 1993), 112.
2. Quentin J. Schultze, ed., Dancing in the Dark: Youth, Popular Culture, and the Electronic Media (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), 14.
3. Ibid., 19.
4. Steven J. Novak, The Rights of Youth: American Colleges and Student Revolt, 1798-1815(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 1977), 17-25. Quoted in Schultze, Dancing in the Dark, 23.
5. Schultze, 33.
6. Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York:Basic Books, 1977), 243. Quoted in Schultze, Dancing in the Dark, 35.
7. Schultze, 35.
8. Ibid., 45.
9. George Barna, Generation Next: What You Need to Know About Today's Youth (Ventura,Calif.: Regal, 1995), 11.
10. Dunn, x.
11. Barna, 18.
12. Dunn, x.
13. Ibid., 16.
14. Barna, 18-21.
15. Jan Johnson, "Getting the Gospel to the Baby Busters," Moody Monthly (May 1995): 50.
17. Ibid., 51.
18. Barna, 108-15.
19. Jay Kesler, Ten Mistakes Parents Make With Teenagers (And How to Avoid Them) (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988).
1. William Dunn, The Baby Bust: A Generation Comes of Age
(Ithaca, N.Y.: American Demographics Books, 1993), 112.