Quaker meetings in the U.S. are generally filled with whiter, older, highly educated, middle-to-upper class, or in other words, very privileged people. Today’s youth face far fewer options than their parents had at the same age. Consequently, a disconnect has been growing for some time between generations, both within and beyond our Quaker community.
Young people are now deviating away from high-income occupations. They are either actively choosing or being forced by necessity to take steps such as attending trade school rather than four-year university, taking time off between high school and college, or intentionally focusing on heavy internal work, such as healing generational traumas.
The divide between generations is further evident in recent, primarily youth-led social justice spaces, including the climate and Wall Street movements. Today’s youth did not ask to inherit these broken systems forecasting such a bleak future. Even so, they are stepping up to the plate as political warriors, often unpaid, and struggling to solve lofty dilemmas. As a result, young people find themselves broke, with older adults assuming they are somehow failing, due to a lack of material wealth. It’s not a secret nor a surprise that many young adults and even teenagers are jaded and encounter frequent onsets of depression in response to these compounding forces.
Today’s elders can be naively optimistic about the future of our planet and economy, especially if sheltered in homogenous bubbles of entitlement. While some do continue to be involved in the political sphere, standing up for their beliefs and Quaker values, others seem to merely cash in on yesterday’s actions: justifying low levels of present engagement by recounting previous activism – protesting the Vietnam War and the draft, campaigning for civil and women’s rights, etc. Many seem to believe these past actions acquit their failure to act now.
This multi-factored divide between generations makes it hard for Friends to sense our shared foundation and talk deeply about spirituality and other topics of significance. Relationships are about meeting each other where we are and uplifting gifts; they should not involve misplaced expectations. We won’t get anywhere by trying to force a square peg into a round hole, nor by fearfully avoiding connection for perceived lack of commonalities.
Our Quaker youth cohort is especially valuable because it is few in number. Older Friends say they want to see more youth involvement and leadership, but don’t always seem to appreciate or respect the crazy acrobatics required of younger people as they juggle work, career advancement, relocation, relationships, and more.
Though older adults crave connections with younger generations and all the vibrancy that these exchanges may bring, at the same time, they might not recognize the importance of treating younger people as equals. Younger Friends similarly crave connection with older Friends, but might feel intimidated about approaching adults they haven’t met yet. Intentionality will be needed to create truly intergenerational spaces. Just as Friends are now establishing opportunities for deep listening as part of expanding our understanding of racism, we should also prioritize open and honest intergenerational conversations.
Quaker meetings would do well to consider new ways to offer mentorship and support to young Friends during life’s difficult transitions such as entering high school, moving out of one’s family home, and gaining new employment. Friends could also offer more support for transitions later in life, such as throughout marriage and retirement.
We must acknowledge our differences and develop creative ways to support youth and engage both youth and elders in meaningful dialogue and activity. Some of these new approaches might fit within our current structures, like allocating time in committees for mentorship. Such approaches could help foster relationships between individuals of different generations who hold similar interests. Small and consistent actions go a long way toward creating the sense of community and connection that we all seem to crave. Let’s bridge this divide.
Rebekah Percy grew up in Pacific Yearly Meeting (PacYM), is a member of La Jolla Monthly Meeting, and currently serves as PacYM’s Interim Youth Programs Coordinator.