By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
-Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock"
Addressing a professional audience about generational change recently, I elicited a strange reaction when I spoke of defining events -- noteworthy waypoints of times past that had exponential effects on what would happen going forward. My theme related to the rising tide of Millennials now filling the shoes of aging (55 to 70) Baby Boomers, finally (and begrudgingly) withdrawing from their long and dominant position on the North American landscape.
The audience reacted, almost in disbelief, when I mentioned I'd personally been at the "Woodstock Music & Art Fair" (or just 'Woodstock') in 1969. I, the paunchy 68-year-old at the podium, had traveled to Upper New York State to hear Jimi Hendrix play and inadvertently became part of an historical event marking the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Joni Mitchell's lyrics speak of a pastoral landscape, transformed into a virtual city of half a million who started out to attend an outdoor rock concert and instead, became the unwitting spokespeople for a new generation rising to leverage this unprecedented event by telling the world that the scourge of Vietnam was going to end and they were seizing the future to create a new beginning.
I still don't know what drew me to Woodstock any more than I know why generational change should have become one of my interests in later life. But I do know that it's impossible to find anything in the world today that might serve Millennials as well. They clearly seek a signpost pointing to how things might be improved, even as the louder voices of my waning cohort dismiss them thinking, as they wrongly do, that Boomers will live forever.
Millennials hate waste; wasted money, wasted hydrocarbon fuels, wasted food, wasted time. Millennials have strong beliefs in reaching out to help society at both the individual and professional levels. And Millennials, while ready to buy in to a message like that of Bernie Sanders, haven't developed the means to create the necessary groundswell to give it flight as yet. Why? My theory is there's a lack of any singular seminal event (a 'Millennial Woodstock') to provide the impetus.
Some suggest "the tech revolution" or "climate change" or "decaying western economics" all fit the description of seminal change. On some level, there's truth there. The problem is that these realities do not affect Millennials any more or any less than any other segment of society. Woodstock was about one group experiencing something in a confined space and time and in such numbers that the experience would act as the blasting cap to set off the explosion.
More negative younger thinkers posit that a devastating major event must occur to jar societal change that will, because of its timing, be led by the new generation. What event? Economic collapse; war; terrorism dwarfing 9/11 in scale? These are all terrifying prospects. Sunnier predictions point to a rapid development and deployment of cheap, clean, renewable, transformative power sources on a scale never experienced and so empowering that a new and unbridled industrial revolution would occur.
The answer is unclear as of now. What we know is that the Millennials are very different. They favor contribution versus retention. They believe in a fairer society for everyone. They are satisfied with significantly less than their forbears and they take great pleasure in 500 square feet of centrally located living space, a Starbuck's coffee, wi-fi, and a bicycle.
No Baby Boomer could seriously claim we've done a great job and will leave a bountiful and well-maintained society for our sons and daughters. What we can do, while we're still here, is to pass along our experiences, teach true leadership, and allow the Millennials to find and seize the moment as they define an as yet unknown seminal event that initiates the start sequence to their fifty years of impact on world history. Perhaps they'd do well to accept the way things are and, without blame or retribution, take on the responsibility they now inherit.
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