For some time now, there has been intense interest among American business leaders, but also among pastors, church officials, and denominational consultants, in the decline of the Baby Boomer generation (consisting of those born between 1946 and 1964), and the rise of younger generations, including Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and “Generation-Z” (born between 1997 and 2012). Analysts have spilled a lot of ink describing what these new generations are like.
Some demographers and business analysts argue that Millennials and Gen-Z’ers are very different from Baby Boomers. Thus, one Industry Week article notes that while Boomers view “work as a badge of honor,” Millennials and Gen-Z’ers “have a different mindset: for them, work is necessary to live, but separate from life” (Kate Altany, “Baby Boomers vs. Millennials: Merging Cultures,” October 9, 2019).
More sweepingly, a Business Insider article argues that Gen-Z’ers and Millennials differ from Baby Boomers in several ways. They are happier living in cities rather than in suburbs, exurbs, or rural communities; they “are more motivated to make an impact wherever they work;” they are “[un]afraid to change jobs or work independently.” And they “have lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth” than their parents did at their age. As a result, Millennials and Gen-Z’ers are slower to marry and “to own homes” (Stephanie Taylor, “5 Major Differences Between the Lives of Millennials and Baby Boomers,” April 3, 2019).
Similarly, a SurveyMonkey article notes that Millennials and Gen-Z’ers do their “job hunting online, [using] social media;” in addition, “quality of life and self-fulfillment” concerns are more important to them than they are for Boomers (“Millennials vs. Gen-X in The Workplace: Differences and Similarities,” Undated).
Another article notes that Millennials and Gen-Z’ers “need immediate gratification;” they communicate digitally and value a workplace environment “that offers nearly constant feedback. [But] they can quickly lose interest and burn out in a position that lacks challenges.” By contrast, Baby Boomers value “structured hierarch[ical] system[s]” and “face-to-face communication,” but not constant feedback; “they prefer to be given a task and left to do it” (“Baby Boomers vs. Millennials: The Difference in Their Work Ethic,” Sikich LLP, October 17, 2018).
Other business experts like Joshua Bote and Faye Flam say that it is impossible to make categorical statements about entire generations, and that, indeed, Millennials, Gen-Z’ers, and Boomers are “fundamentally the same” (Joshua Bote, “Why Are Gen-Z and Millennials Calling Out Boomers on TikTok? ‘OK, Boomer,’ Explained,” USA Today, November 4, 2019). They argue that while “people go through different life stages as they age,” they do not do so “in lockstep,” since everyone reaches emotional “maturity and adulthood milestones at different times.” Similarly, “historical events”—like “wars, disease outbreaks, and economic [downturns]—can] shape people, but [not] in any uniform or predictable way” across entire generations (Faye Flam, “There’s No Such Thing as Millennials or Boomers,” Bloomberg News, November 9, 2019).
Despite the sensibility of Bote’s and Flam’s arguments, I believe that those who insist that Millennials and Gen-Z’ers are different from Baby Boomers have the better argument. A seismic shift is underway as Western culture reorients itself from modernism to postmodernism, and young people are deeply influenced by this new philosophical awareness.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica editor Brian Duignan, “Postmodernism [is] a late [twentieth]-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, [and] relativism; [it entails] a general suspicion of reason, and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power” (“Postmodernism,” Britannica.com).
According to postmodernism, “reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses” that “reflect the interests and values of dominant or elite groups. [Moreover,] the discourse of modern science, has no greater purchase on the truth than do astrology and witchcraft.”
“Reality, then, is a kind of fiction which we all create based upon our experiences and the information we encounter. The characters we meet are all [making up] their own stories, many of which don’t correspond with ours.”
If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, Colby College professor of English Aaron Hanlon notes dryly that “critics today, on both left and [the] right are happy to [blame] postmodern theory for the Trump [Administration’s—and the Trump] electorate’s—unprecedented disregard for the truth” (“Postmodernism Didn’t Cause Trump. It Explains Him,” Washington Post, August 31, 2018). Indeed, some analysts have called Trump, “America’s first postmodern president.”
I suspect that Millennials and Gen’Z’ers have embraced postmodern thinking in a way that Baby Boomers have not. And sometimes, the resulting differences spur inter-generational conflict—in the workplace, in society-at-large, and in church.
National Public Radio (NPR) business correspondent Yuki Noguchi tells of a Gen-Z woman who was greeted by an older man with the statement, “You look good today.” He thought it was an innocent compliment. But her reaction was, “‘that’s such a weird thing to say.’” Similarly, she describes a young person encountering colleagues or friends who “don’t understand the concept of a fluid gender identity. They’ll say something like, ‘You know, there are only two genders.’” And the young person thinks, “Okay, Boomer, I understand that that’s how [you] were raised, but that kind of stuff just doesn’t fly now” (“#OkBoomer Vs. #OkMillennial: Workplace Nightmare, Or Just A Meme?,” National Public Radio (NPR), November 18, 2019).
To be sure, not all old-young interactions are awkward or conflicted. Nevertheless, enough of them are for Noguchi to report that “the phrase ‘Okay, Boomer’ has become young generations’ retort of choice” to older people who express ideas that they consider to be outdated, offensive, or off base. It “convey[s] a fundamental disconnect” between younger generations and Baby Boomers.
Deseret News journalist Herb Scribner adds that “in the eyes of [Gen-Z’ers], Boomers are no[t just] those born [between] 1946 [and] 1964.” Any older person who just doesn’t get it, or “is intolerant [of] new ideas” can be a Boomer (“What Does ‘OK, Boomer’ Mean? A Millennial Explains,” Deseret News, October 30, 2019).
Behind the name-calling, there is inter-generational “angst and anxiety.” New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz explains that “Gen-Z [will] be the first generation to have a lower quality of life than the generation before them. Previous generations have left [young people saddled] with rising inequality, unaffordable college tuition [costs], political polarization, and the climate crisis. Essentials are more expensive than ever before; [Gen-Z’ers] pay 50 percent of [their] income to rent;” and they have “no health insurance.” Meanwhile, the government’s Social Security and Medicare funds will likely be drained by the time Millennial and Gen-Z workers reach retirement age. And many Boomers are continuing to work well into their seventies, “crowding younger workers out of the job force.” Little wonder that there is “anti-Boomer resentment.” (“‘OK Boomer’ Marks the End of Friendly Generational Relations,” October 29, 2019, and Tom Dunkel, “A War Between the Old and the Young?,” AARP, April 2014).
But the disdain of the young has “inspir[ed] a backlash,” Noguchi adds, “from older Americans” who are offended by “the phrase, ‘OK, Boomer.’” The bristly exchanges between young and old “speak to different attitudes about social and political change—[about] everything from gender-neutral bathrooms to the #MeToo movement.”
So how does all this play out in church? “Okay, Boomer” putdowns may not have much impact, for the simple and regrettable reason that there aren’t many Millennials or Gen-Z’ers in church these days.
Nevertheless, if the world has transitioned to a postmodern outlook, as I believe it has, it is also true that the church has changed and is continuing to change in fundamental ways.
Millennial and Gen-Z ministers seem to be different in fundamental ways from Baby Boomer pastors. Their attitudes toward their ministerial ethics and professional boundaries; toward establishing and maintaining friendships with congregants; toward interfaith participation; toward their denominations and denominational officials; toward ministerial authorization; and toward theology seem to be less rigid and more casual—more humane, perhaps—than the perspectives of Baby Boomer ministers. In addition, young ministers may be more “liberal” or “progressive” culturally, theologically and politically—and more tolerant toward, and expectant of, social, cultural, and ecclesiastical change—than Boomers.
Reciprocally, Millennial and Gen-Z congregants seem to differ markedly from Baby Boomer churchgoers. They may show up in the pews less often, and they may give less money to their church, but they are more liberal or progressive—and they want to engage in social justice work and political advocacy even more than Boomers do. They don’t want to be held in check by older church leaders or to be given “make-work” tasks to do, and they don’t want to have to wait thirty years before they can participate in meaningful ministries in their churches and communities. They want to be involved in projects that will make a difference now.
Despite these generational differences and postmodern attitudes, I confess that I believe in the possibility of inter-generational worship and church community. I believe in the possibility of civil discourse between the young and the old. And I believe that a church’s reputation for caring for the well-being of its people goes a long way in attracting Millennials and Gen-Z’ers.
Churches need to change their leadership and communication style if they want to attract and keep people—including Baby Boomers, Millennials and Generation-Z’ers. The era of authoritarian leaders and pastors has ended. The kind of leadership that will be required is more approachable, more direct, and more personable.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.