Gen X, millennial, boomer: Crossing generational lines


Generational warfare has always struck me as nuts. What healthy society, or family, pits old and young against one another? But millennials hate boomers, Gen Xers criticize millennials, boomers resent their aging greatest generation parents. Or at least so we are told. It’s a battle of media- and marketing-manufactured demographic groups.

I grew up in a generation that made a cult of youth. I remember going to see the execrable hippie movie “Wild in the Streets” about my '60s generation putting everyone over 30 into concentration camps.

That very night, after I emerged from the theater, I went home, turned on the TV, and saw the rioting and chaos at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was like “Wild in the Streets” come to life, except the grown-ups were wielding nightsticks. Generational warfare seemed, at best, utterly unproductive. Those images helped elect Richard Nixon.

Unlike the stereotypes of my fellow '60s kids, I have always sought out elders and mentors. In my professional life, I have worked with older journalists who taught me the craft of writing, editing and reporting. I figured out very early that people with experience were the best teachers, often the best companions, and good friends.

Even as I have entered elderhood myself, I continue to consort with even older people who have great experience, a store of stories and wisdom to impart, people who lie somewhere between friends and mentors. The bittersweet aspect: losing them.

I lost two in one recent week. Roger Sale, the former University of Washington English professor, critic and writer who authored the incomparable “Seattle Past to Present,” the best city history since Murray Morgan’s “Skid Road.” When I left Seattle Weekly for the last time in 2006, the newspaper’s founder, and another friend and mentor, David Brewster, invited me to join a breakfast group that meets weekly in Madrona. The group has many interesting members, including Brewster, historian Junius Rochester, journalists like Joel Connelly and KING alum Bobbie Spaeth, and many other interesting, experienced and witty people, quite a few older and wiser than me. They are a storehouse of knowledge about the city in all its phases, including the present.

Roger Sale was one of the founders of the group, and on an almost-weekly basis over the last decade I have been able to get his perspective on the city, pick his incredibly sharp brain and get his informed opinion on what I’m working on. I also collected an eclectic wonder-cabinet of information about his past, such as his brother’s friendship with Thomas Pynchon, or his visit to the 1939 New York World’s Far, or his views on his friend, Jane Jacobs. His mind contained multitudes.

Roger became physically hobbled over the last year with leg problems, but his mind failed to fail. The greatest compliment he paid was his patting a chair and saying, “Sit next to me.”

Another good friend who died last week: Dan McConnell, a longtime local PR man. Dan aided mountaineering expeditions as their contact with the outside world, he attended and worked with sponsors at many Olympic Games, and we worked together on the 50th Anniversary of the Space Needle. He handled PR assignments for the Needle for more than 20 years. Dan helped me with research for my book on the Needle’s history and did cool things like introduce me to Buzz Aldrin.

Journalists tend to dislike flacks, but McConnell was an exception to the stereotype of the breed. He was thoughtful, grounded, not manic; he was well connected, not a bullshitter. He taught classes at the UW School of Communications for budding professionals. I was included on an annual panel of journalists he brought in to give his students an unvarnished look at the challenges they faced from the media. Dan was smart, a gentleman who knew his craft and had been through the media wars and survived, with loads of practical wisdom to share. He was a great storyteller too, which you have to be to succeed in his business.

So, my village is short, now, of a couple of elders who enriched my life and career. There are many others still going who have, and continue, to do that. In looking back at my own career, it has always been enhanced by men and women who were willing to bridge the generational gap by reaching down to pull me up, to nudge me, to scold me, to nourish me.

Of course, generational inter-mixing is a two-way street. My children are millennials who follow politics and culture, and they have kept me abreast of issues very important to them, like affordability, youth justice, racism and technology.

I’ve spent time with young talents like Marcus Green of the South Seattle Emerald, who is helping to put a huge swath of Seattle on the media map. And there’s Monica Guzman and Anika Anand of The Evergrey, who are doing so much to reshape engagement in Seattle. I have participated in several of The Evergrey’s millennial-rich events, such as an Inauguration Day post-mortem and a trip to Trump-land in Oregon. If Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders voters can find common ground and civil talk with Trump voters, surely the generations can get together.

There is so much to do to make this a better world and a better city. The generations need to do it together, to learn from one another. Chief Seattle warned the whites that they were leaving their dead behind, cutting themselves off from their past, their roots. Othering our elders is an extension of that phenomenon. Fighting with our youngers is futile too — a barrier to progress. Generational prejudice and segregation is not healthy.

Gen Xers, stop blaming millennials. Millennials, stop berating boomers. We need each other, and so do the coming generations.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.