The Occupy movement was a reminder that power and responsibility is held in the hands of a few, and mostly within the same generation -- the baby boom cohort.
Never mind that younger people will shoulder the burden of decisions made at high levels today -- rarely are they allowed at the table. Frustration at that fact is one reason youth drove the Occupy movement in its early days. Why, then, did Occupy eventually draw support from across the age spectrum? Perhaps after seeing rising inequality shrink their children's opportunities, some Boomers were moved to join. Or maybe, in increasingly shaky economic times, other Boomers saw their own good fortunes at risk.
It was a glimpse of what happens when generations with different strengths and concerns come together. Whatever becomes of the Occupy movement, it has already shown the need for those wanting social change to pursue a cluster of questions:
What could be possible, if Boomers let Generation Y into the room, with a real willingness to collaborate on solutions?
What if young people gave those powerful Boomers a respectful ear?
And what can Boomers learn from Gen Y that is vital to creating a better future for people of all ages?
Kevin Millsip wants to find out.
A Vancouver Gen X-er who's worked in the youth activism realm for years, 42-year-old Millsip organizes public events that bring generations together to talk through issues that shape cities and communities, and work collaboratively. At this moment, when humanity faces what Millsip calls a "gong show" of complex challenges including climate change, food security and peak oil, he believes there are important lessons to be shared between old and young.
"It's not possible that any one group or any one generation can deal with all this stuff on their own," he says.
This week, Millsip and colleagues are once again testing the collective wisdom of the age spectrum with the launch of Re:Generation, a series of four events designed to tackle issues surrounding Vancouver's Greenest City Goals, including transportation and local food.
The first in the series, "How We Move Our City," is set for Wednesday, Jan. 25, and promises four transportation tales shared by four different generations. To start, pre-Boomers from the Transit Museum Society will reminisce about Vancouver's commuter tram days. A Boomer will recount her battle against a proposed freeway extension through Chinatown in the late 1960s. A Generation X-er will speak on the creation of the car co-op now known as Modo, and a duo of Gen Ys will conclude with their company, Shift, a bicycle cargo delivery cooperative.
But Re:Generation won't just be a cozy story-telling session, Millsip says. He recognizes the inherent tensions between generations, and says events like Re:Generation provide a space to have "difficult conversations" about any awkward perceptions.
"I've heard this a lot in the work I've done with young people, that young people are the leaders of tomorrow and they're our future, which technically is true," he says. "But at a pragmatic or real level, I feel that gets said so that people who are in charge now don't have to actually take responsibility for the mess that's being made."
'We are all intimidated by each other'
Donald MacPherson, a self-described Boomer involved in changing Canadian drug policy (he was the City of Vancouver's top harm reduction policies implementer for years), attended one of Millsip's previous intergenerational gatherings. He remembers one of the exercises, which asked: How do you think other generations see you?
"It was quite funny, because nearly all of the groups started with the negative. The Boomers said, 'Oh well, we're old and in the way. We're not savvy, we don't know how to run Twitter and Facebook.' And then it gravitated towards 'Hey, just a minute now! We're mentors, we have lots of experience and wisdom.' And the millenials were the same. 'We're just seen as young, stupid, Twitter freaks, and no one respects us.' But then they gravitated to, 'Well we're smart, energy, we know technology, people are always asking us for help,'" he remembers.
MacPherson says he learned that the younger people in the room were looking for respect, and adds they had a lot to offer, though fewer doors are open for them.
"I think [Kevin's] really trying to get people to think about where they are situated in the demographies, their values, their strengths, their weaknesses, how they can learn from others. I think it's really healthy," he says.
While plenty of organizations are trying out intergenerational dialogue at their events, for now the results seem to be mostly talk.
A recent Vancouver conference, XYBOOM, brought generations together to talk about youth unemployment. The day featured panels on recruitment and hiring strategies. Boomers shared tips on how Gen Ys can market their job skills, and learned how to help develop the talents of young people in the workforce. And, of course, stereotypes were addressed.
Early in the day, the participants lined up in order of age and were asked to talk about what they had in common with a few people nearby. Then they were asked to cross the room and face another generation, meet someone new, and find some commonalities. What did they learn?
"We are all intimidated by each other," a confident Gen Y tells the crowd afterwards.
"Maybe we have high expectations," says another. "We need to break these perspectives, be willing to do the dirty work."
During a break, a cluster of huddling Gen Ys forms in a corner. Derek Kankam says he already has a job, so for him, the conference is more of a networking opportunity. "When we have events like this, the older generation, they look at us differently," he points out.
Next to him, Nicky Cheung, unemployed, says the exercise did change his perspectives of Boomers. "I feel like they're a lot more open than I assumed they would be." But when asked if he thinks the conference will land him any job opportunities, he smiles.
"Uh," he says. "Well, no. I guess you make contacts first."
'Storytelling and wisdom sharing'
While events like these may not necessarily lead to something concrete like job creation, those in the activism world say having specific, intentional conversations between generations, in order to share strategies and transfer knowledge, is critical.
The Gen Why Media Project, a youth civic engagement group, runs its own intergenerational events series called Bring Your Boomers. One event took on the question of how to make activism more accessible to regular folks.
"It was kind of this old pastime of storytelling and wisdom sharing we didn't expect," says Gen Why co-founder Tara Mahoney.
Mahoney says part of the inspiration for Bring Your Boomers was that "intentional, intergenerational conversations were lacking," and that void created problems. For one, younger generations are often unfairly characterized by older generations. "Always in this negative guise, always in terms of marketing," she says.
But, she argues, anger and resentment between generations only feeds the status quo. Gen Why's events attempt to move past initial perceptions, with the goal of collaborative change.
"Older generations don't necessarily know much about the generation that's coming up, except for the relationship they have with their kids," says Mahoney. "The younger generation is starved for wisdom. Real wisdom. And they're a bit apprehensive about the future, and all these colliding crises. They're really intent on listening to what older generations did when they faced their crises."
Mahoney says she was surprised by how well the first Bring Your Boomers events played out, and plans to hold another in May. The theme will be belonging.
The Re:Generation event "How We Move Our City" kicks off at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at SFU Woodwards World Arts Centre, 149 West Hastings Street, Vancouver. Cost is $5 - $10 on a sliding scale, and free for the "underemployed."
Partners include the City of Vancouver, Greenest City Team, SFU Woodwards, and BC Transit Museum. Partial proceeds will be donated to Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition (VACC).