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Hey Millennials, Can We Talk?

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Kathryn McCallum

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Rachel Lu - published on 03/26/14

Sour economy. Sour marriages. Sour politics. If you’re feeling a little disaffected, my Millennial friend, we get it. But let’s talk about why your life is still a great adventure.

The good news, Millennials, is that you’re not the first to have to explain your generation to a host of disapproving elders. People have been talking about “the me generation” ever since the Boomers came of age in the 1970’s, so you’re in good company. Older people will probably never be quite satisfied with the speed at which the next generation matures.  

Still, you shouldn’t dismiss them completely. As you already know, older people have a hard time understanding your dogged attachment to your smart phones and social media. But this isn’t just about getting over their old-people aversion to new technology. They’re genuinely worried about you, and they have some reason to be.

The concern, Millennials, is that you seem to be having trouble getting settled into adult life. You may not be too worried about it yet (surveys say you aren’t), but your parents appreciate how much traditional sources of community can help in keeping you sane and grounded, and in seeing you through those difficult periods that most everyone encounters at some point in life. Thus, they worry about the fact that so few of you are married. They’re alarmed by your lack of interest in traditional religion and mainstream politics. It concerns them to see that, for all your rosy optimism about your own prospects, you don’t seem to trust other people.

There are lots of reasons for this detachment. You’ve faced some substantial challenges over these last ten years. It might seem to you that these institutions (church, marriage, politics and civil society) just aren’t offering you very much. I think ultimately you’re wrong about that, but I understand your skepticism.

You grew up in the era of Highly Effective People. From your early school days you were taught to set their sights on higher education and lofty professional goals. Many of you bought into the program, but thus far the payoff has been meager. A lot of you emerged from college with staggering loans (far more than your parents had) and found yourselves applying all that education towards bussing tables or stocking shelves as you struggle to pay off loans.

Sadly, those of you who refused the college racket have struggled even more in a weak economy. You’re depressingly likely to be unemployed or working low-wage, often part-time jobs that offer limited opportunities for advancement. You know that your employment prospects dwindle further the longer you’re out of work. It used to be more possible for a hard-working person to find a steady job in this country, even without specialized skills. But now, for many of you, the chances of having a productive life seem to be fading right before your eyes.

This leads us to the subject of marriage. Your elders often fail to understand that you’re not really opposed to it. For many of you it just seems like a distant dream. You were taught to see marriage as the culmination of a broader process of maturation, coming after education and professional and financial establishment. What if those things never happen? If you’ve come to see marriage as a kind of reward for worldly success, you may find yourself in the unhappy position of concluding that anyone who’s willing to have you must not be the sort of husband or wife that you would want.

As for politics, am I the only one who’s noticed how politicians spend their time competing for the affections of older people? Understandably, you’re fairly confident that all these elderly-care initiatives will bring you more bills than benefits. Now the new health care laws are pressuring you into picking up still more bills for their elders. Nothing new to see here, apparently.

You still expect great things from yourselves, and I’m definitely rooting for you. Some might see your rootlessness is a good thing, since it leaves you ready for adaptation and change. But I think most of you realize that you need something more. As the youthful optimism runs out, perhaps you should consider coming back to church. Or better still, to the Church.

A church can provide community support, which matters more than you might presently realize. It’s easier to form a stable marriage, start a family and live a healthy life when you have a community of like-minded people to provide context and some good examples of what works. Young families tend to need guidance and encouragement, and just the occasional helping hand. Churches are great for that.

Far more importantly, though, you need something more substantial to give your life purpose.  You need to know who you are and why your life matters. The Church can answer those questions like no other institution can.

She can tell you why your life is precious regardless of whether you manage to find your niche in a changing economy. She can provide structure and focus to family life, and tell you how to forge a lasting marriage in bad times as well as in good. If you’ve made mistakes in your life, join the club. Mother Church specializes in helping people to pick themselves up and try again. Maybe you don’t have the funds to hire a fancy therapist? No worries. She takes all comers.

Her resources are vast. Whatever you need, she’s got it. I’m not talking here about giant chests of gold hidden under the Vatican. I’m talking about her priceless store of beauty, spiritual wisdom, and rich insight into the human condition.

Are you a fan of spirituality? That’s great. Pick up St. Theresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, or for a more modern personality, read up on the amazing life of St. Padre Pio. Do you prefer a more dispassionate, analytically rigorous discourse? Check out the Scholastic philosophers or their contemporary Thomistic interpreters.  If you’re worried about the dehumanizing effects of big government and a far-reaching global economy, Christian personalism is for you. Or, if you’re not really much of a reader, just bask in a rich legacy of art and music and liturgy that have enabled billions of Catholics (many of them illiterate and desperately impoverished) to draw nearer to a loving God.

Holy Mother Church has ever been a haven for lost or drifting souls. No company or political party can begin to match her experience in tapping the potential of an incredible range of people, living under enormously diverse circumstances. In case you’ve heard otherwise, be assured that the welcome mat is still out. Check it out, Millennials.

Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.

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