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The zeitgeist of Generation Why

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Zeitgeist : The term is a German term, derived from Zeit – "time" and Geist – "spirit". Zeitgeist is the general cultural,intellectualethicalspiritual, or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambiancemorals, sociocultural direction, and mood associated with an era.

As a scholar who studies generations, I adopt the peculiar, but (trust me) deeply-considered view that people don’t “belong to” or “have” generations; ideas do. This view doesn’t stop others from plunking me into the category of Generation Y, nor does it dissuade me from writing about generations and engaging with the prevailing vision of Boomers, Gen-X and Gen-Y.

This got me thinking: do today’s young people share a zeitgeist, a “spirit”?

Following from my position that ideas have generations, but people don’t, I want to propose here that there exists a “spirit of the times,” but we don’t possess or abide by it just by virtue of being comparatively young. Just as many old country songs have posited about love, generation isn’t something you have, it’s something you do.

Our challenge, as the young rabble, is to seize on the progressive and potentially progressive aspects of the “spirit of the age” and channel them, so that they move from ideas, to ideals, and later achievements in social justice and human flourishing. Along the way, we need to draw other people in.

So what are the (potentially) progressive ideas within the present spirit? I can’t possibly list them all -- I hope you readers will help me with that in the comments -- but I will point to two: one based on my research, and the other based on my personal experiences living in different Canadian cities.

My research, which is loosely on the topic of generations and work, stems partly from a beef I have with the widespread notion that “Gen Y” and “the Millenials” are overly “entitled” and lack a proper work ethic. Even where writers and management consultants encourage employers to appreciate the “unique” qualities and skills young employees have to offer, they tend to ignore the obvious and obscure social, political, economic and historical factors that underlie different approaches attitudes toward work.

From my interviews with 20 and 30-somethings, it’s clear to me that there are new ideas about work taking hold in contemporary society, but they’re not unique to the under-30 crowd. Moreover, they don’t revolve around a rejection of work, or a desire to get something for nothing. Instead, these are the kinds of things I hear:

“I want to be part of something bigger than myself.”

“I want to be able to see the impact of what I do.”

“I want to work for a company or a cause I believe in.”

“Money isn’t enough.”

What I’m hearing, loud and clear, the wish for work that feels liberating, creative, worthwhile and appreciated. These people refuse to feel ambivalent about paid employment; if they can’t find a job they love enough to throw everything into it, they’ll settle for any job where the hours are restricted and the responsibilities limited enough that they have time and energy for creative, cherished pursuits outside paid work. In so doing, they perpetuate the very notion they want to resist: that work and life are two separate things.

Their attitude, I’ve concluded, is something along the lines of what French New Left philosopher Andre Gorz described as “disaffection.” As he put it:

Particularly prevalent among young workers, this attitude finds expression not so much in a lack of interest or a refusal to work hard but rather in a desire that work should fit into life instead of life having to fit into or be sacrificed to one's job or career….This desire to liberate oneself from, or vis-a-vis, work should not be seen as opposed to the traditional union objectives of achieving liberation in work. On the contrary, past experience has shown that workers become more demanding with regard to their working conditions and work relations when their work leaves them time and energy to have a personal life.

Am I right? Is disaffection part of the present zeitgeist? If it is, it presents an important opportunity to kick back against deteriorating working conditions and labour relations, not solely around the issue of wages and benefits -- although that’s important -- but out of a desire, both latent and manifest, for time, energy and personal lives. If we had more of the latter, it might just strengthen our somewhat-atrophied civil sphere.

In my personal life, something related stands out. Specifically, I’ve noticed an interesting confluence of social and environmental activism around the notion and recognition of interdependence -- between humans and other living things, ecosystems, industrial production and markets.

Especially in urban areas and towns with strong liberal and creative arts connections, I believe we’re seeing resurgence in the acknowledgment and embrace of interdependence. Growing or renewed interest in things like farmer’s markets, public transit, artist space, town hall meetings, festivals, community gardens, and small shops over big box stores -- all of these signal a willingness and even a desire to live a life connected to others, to one’s environment, to the source of one’s food and belongings. For some people, these interests stem from a concern for the environment; others are primarily concerned about economic sustainability and cultivating vibrant communities. But for everyone, they suggest a wish to break away from anonymous exchanges of money for goods and services. Increasingly, people want to know their neighbours, their farmers and their shopkeepers. It’s good for people and it’s good for ecosystems.

Indeed, in urban planning, architecture and municipal politics, people are increasingly realizing that the ‘hard stuff’ of buildings, roads, sidewalks, water, street advertising and public transit have everything to do with the ‘soft stuff’ of community, vitality and diversity. Moreover, all of this ‘stuff’ takes place at the intersection of environmental and social interdependence.

These are spirits worth developing. But they’re not automatically “ours,” as young people, for two reasons: first, because there are many young people who would throw their bodies on the line for the preservation of everything I, and possibly you, find appalling. And second, because there are plenty of older people who feel the spirit as much as or more than we do.

Thus, generation is not something we simply have. It is not among the laurels we can rest on. It is a struggle to define and develop the desirable parts of the “spirit of the times,” and it is endless. But it is possible.

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