We like to be able to identify the “thread” that holds things together, the metaphor that makes sense of our experience. As Joan Didion once put it, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But the emerging generation of young people live in a world without such threads, such metaphors, such overarching stories. Instead, they are plagued with endless possibilities.
But not only them. Our institutional leaders, similarly, face a reality that is increasingly devoid of overarching metaphors. In a world gone busy, we all tend to get caught up in the moment.
Whether penned by twenty-somethings or based on the sociological analysis of others, descriptions of this emerging generation are instructive. Joseph Bernstein in the Atlantic self-reflectively writes: “We have soaring self-esteem that shatters on the beach break of employment; no chance in the global job market; great debt; no religion; a robust social media presence; access to a baffling array of subcultures; no idea when to get married; an unacceptably extended adolescence; the tatters of the American Dream clasped like a talisman to our overprivileged breasts; a rotting Earth. Or so you’ve heard.” And when a group of these young adults were presented with stereotypical descriptions of emerging generations drawn from across the last number of decades, without exception they chose the following description (from Christian Smith) as the one that most aptly described them. They self-identified as “free to roam, experiment, learn, move on, and try again . . . all the while displaying an intense (though often unstable) identity exploration while living in a limbo land of countless hopeful possibilities . . . leading to large doses of transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, and often emotional devastation.”
Curiously, I hear similar descriptions of reality—both social and personal—from a very different segment of the population: institutional leaders, largely of the “boomer” generation. Could it be, more generally, that boomers and millennials are really not as distinct as we’ve been led to believe? Institutional leaders, from across the spectrum of higher education, churches, foundations, health care, (and add your preferred sector here), increasingly describe their world and their sense of self similarly. The mantra of the moment is not simply that everything is changing, and that the rate of change is more rapid than ever before, but that everything is uncertain. Healthcare has headed into uncharted waters and all the rules are being rewritten. The financial world is anything but predictable and there’s no real sense that anything more stable or predictable will emerge in the foreseeable future. The direction and value of higher education is hotly debated. The political world has polarized into platitudes that fail to placate or please anyone. Churches are mired in scandal, denominations suffer steady decline, the faithful are no longer as faithful to theological traditions as they are to music and movements that help them feel good in the moment. How in the world does one offer leadership in the midst of such unrelenting transiency, possibility, decline, and drama? How could we even know what counts as fruitful or faithful leadership in times of such flux?
Caught up in the moment, the response of institutional leaders all too often looks like this: as obstacles arise, structures are changed. As budgets fall short, new strategies are tried. The latest organizational trends rise and fall, hot new markets are explored and abandoned, communication strategies morph into promising social networks (but what to do when a bit of bad news then goes viral?). Some fruitful and satisfying results may be achieved—more or less. And then the game starts over: another day, another report cycle, another semester, and so on. It’s all rather like the latest video game. Obstacles pop up. Strategies are tried. Hours are consumed. People come and go. It’s fun, more or less. And then you start over.
The emerging generation takes up its video game way of life too. As they leave high school and home to venture out into the delights of higher educational life, they become inordinately preoccupied with managing the personal and organizational matters of everyday campus life. Obstacles arise: When do I eat lunch? What path is best to take from this class to that? With whom should I hang out? Strategies are tried: daily habits and schedules are arranged and re-arranged, designed and discarded, until, either by apathy or default to whatever is the dominant mood of the day, a semblance of daily living sort of settles in. Hours are consumed, semesters come and go.
In a world gone busy for all of us, perhaps it would be good to pause. Pause for a contemplative conversation. Rather than managing the next moment, what if instead we would all pause long enough to engage a conversational moment with a mentor?
There is at least anecdotal evidence that the “college-and-careers” crowd is not only open to this, but actively seeking it out. A recent informal survey we conducted with several Christian colleges revealed that wherever a mentoring program is provided, there is almost always a larger number of students requesting a mentor than there are mentors available. And across universities and colleges more generally, the demand and support for internships, field education experience, and other forms of mentored learning continues to rise.
These conversational moments with a mentor, with a wise friend or seasoned practitioner, are frequently intergenerational events. The emerging generation may love to hang out with their peers, but when they seek a mentor, they typically turn to someone who is not so much like them. They tend to seek out someone who has been able to figure out who and how to be in times and contexts different than their own. When seeking a mentor, they reach out across a divide—a generational, vocational, communal gap—and, whether intentionally or not, they begin to redeem and renew the social architecture that has wasted away around them.
Admittedly, this is but a beginning. The turn to a mentor rather than merely managing each successive moment as best they can, does not, in and of itself, solve all of this emerging generation’s problems or completely retool their social imagination. But neither are these conversational moments without effect. For though they may be (or seem to be) unscripted, and, at their best, are decidedly not instrumental or problem solving in kind, over time these interactions frequently prove to be generative and influential. These interactions help to sustain the growth and maturity of their social imagination as well as their continuing involvement in the institutions that nurtured them.
Could it be, therefore, that institutional leaders, whose own narratives of the world echo so closely that of the emerging generation, might also benefit from turning to a mentor? Could it be that institutional leaders might better participate—however modestly—in the redemption and renewal of the social architecture that has wasted away around them if they cultivated a desire and practiced the habit of seeking out a mentor? But if so, where might that intergenerational mentor be? To whom shall they turn?
Older institutional leaders may not be able to find a person from a previous time or context to serve as a mentor. Many of those chances may have passed already. But that is not to say that institutional leaders are therefore bereft of opportunities in which to pause and seek out a contemplative conversation. With just a little imagination, interesting possibilities emerge. For is this not, implicitly or explicitly, precisely what many internal organizational processes are intended to do? Reaching across organizational gaps and divides, these internal organizational processes open up communal and deliberative conversational opportunities. Like the older, seasoned, sometimes scarred minds and bodies of intergenerational mentors, these internal processes can sometimes appear cumbersome, clunky, weary, and worn. But as with so many other intergenerational mentors, these organizational committees, policies, and processes embody the time-tested means by which an institution remembers and grows its organizational wisdom, health, and heritage.
Admittedly, this turn to the institutional body may not be very efficient. Nor do deliberative committees, organizational policies, and communal procedures readily lend themselves to effective, timely management of day-to-day crises. But neither is that the role or expectation of a mentor. As surely as day-to-day crises are not well-managed by committee, so too, the longer term benefits of institutional leadership are more likely to emerge from the wellsprings of unhurried, non-instrumental communal conversation. Good mentors are a guide and goad. When we forsake them—choosing to ignore or structurally undo them—we rob ourselves of a shared tradition of wisdom that in times past has helped us flourish.
For the emerging generation and current institutional leaders, the social architecture that parents and grandparents largely took for granted is disappearing; much of it already seems to lie in waste all around. Not surprisingly, therefore, the social, religious, economic, and political location of children and grandchildren is both hard to find and even more difficult to define. There is no leading image, no guiding metaphor for our times. In such circumstances, we inevitably turn our attention to managing the obstacles and opportunities that arise as best we can. But in a world gone busy with the never-ending need to manage these ever-changing circumstances, perhaps we would do well to pause, gain the conversational wisdom of individual and institutional mentors, and in this way modestly, yet significantly, also redeem and renew the social architecture of our generational and institutional location. Social architecture is not a zero sum game. Seeds of renewal can be found in the personal and institutional memory that endures amidst the rubble of malaise.