OK, Christmas

Just like every other generation, millennials are figuring out life out on the fly. And they’re looking for something authentic to anchor themselves.

Stephanie Zollshan/The Berkshire Eagle/AP/File
Stephen Alsdorf cuts down a Christmas tree at a one-day-only tree-cutting event at Notchview Reservation in Windsor, Massachusetts.

So there we were all in a room a few weeks ago – editors, photographers, and designers. Our task was to choose the cover art and headline for this week’s magazine, and on the wall in front of us were several options. One was of a millennial – of course – taking a selfie in front of a picture-perfect tree. 

In some ways, it might have seemed the ideal portrait of a generation. But as you might have noticed, we did not choose that photo, and I want to talk about why.

Right now, we are living in the time of “OK, boomer.” Many of you will have heard of that catchphrase, but for those of you not up on your memes, here’s the Reader’s Digest version: Millennials are tired of being cast as smartphone-obsessed snowflakes who refuse to cope with the real world. “OK, boomer” is a dismissive eye roll in eight letters. It speaks to another facet of the 1960s that is ironically replaying itself: Alongside racial strife, gender rights, economic inequality, and political upheaval, we have a rising generational war, too.

But here’s a curious quote about youth that I came across recently. It’s from 1904.

“Never has youth been exposed to such dangers of both perversion and arrest as in our own land and day,” wrote psychologist Granville Stanley Hall. “Increasing urban life,” he said, brought “temptations, prematurities, sedentary occupations, and passive stimuli just when an active life is most needed,” as well as “a lessening sense for both duty and discipline.”

When I read that, I like to go back and put myself in 1904 mentally. The country was undergoing a seismic change, from a rural nation to an urban one, from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. It would be hard to overstate how profoundly this reshaped the character of the country. And as this was happening, a young generation of Americans was having to navigate it with no firsthand understanding of how the world had been before. There was no playbook. They had to make it up as they went along, and – as we see – many of their elders clearly thought they were getting it all wrong.

Yet in that example are broader patterns of youth and change and how they repeat and intertwine. Think about millennials. The internet and smartphones and social media have essentially rebooted society, much as urbanization did in the early 1900s. There is no playbook for how best to adapt. And millennials are the generation having to figure it out on the fly.

When you look at it that way, a different picture emerges, and that’s what this week’s cover story is about. Amid all the changes on their watch – new views of diversity and identity, maturing economies that offer less job security, rising prices for education and housing, political uncertainty – millennials are searching more deeply for something authentic to hold on to. The search for a real Christmas tree is just one small example.

And that’s about so much more than a selfie.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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