Albert Einstein said the most important thing you can do is name something. What would you name the next generation? Jon Stewart posed this question last year to Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center. Taylor didn’t have an answer. I have one.
Einstein was an unconventional Jew who knew a bit about the Bible. He recognized how Genesis One describes God as properly naming things. Naming brings order out of disorder, the “formless and void.” Adam reflected God’s image by properly naming the animals. Naming things is a big deal. If people pay attention, you’re being taken seriously.
How might we describe the next generation? In April of last year, Jon Stewart posed this question to his guest, Paul Taylor, of the Pew Research Center during a talk about Taylor’s new book, The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the Looming Generational Showdown. It’s actually an ancient question. The naming of generations begins in Genesis. We observe the ever-widening circle of successive generations striving to have dominion, beginning with Adam (5:1), then Noah (6:9), the sons of Noah (10:1), Shem (11:10), Terah (11:27), Ishmael (25:12), Isaac (25:19), Esau (36:1), and finally Jacob (37:2).
Today, we name generations less by patriarchs and more by particular traits. Baby Boomers. Gen X. Millennials. While the naming business can be a bit simplistic, the best names help us understand generations from a broad perspective. We appreciate the significant events that shape them and how they operate. So who’s next?
That’s the question Mary Meehan asked last year in Forbes.1 She wrote about our youngest generation, those born after 1995. They’ve come of age during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. “However, this cohort will be the most diverse generation ever. Their whole world is 3-D, with technology in the palm of their hand (and the outside of their wrist or the back of their eyeglasses). Some of the names that have already been suggested and used are Digitals, iGen, Selfies, Tweenials, Hashtaggers, Homelanders, Evernets, Plurals, Globalists, and 20firsters.” I have one more, but it only describes 10 percent of this 3-D generation. New Copernicans.
I say 10 percent because research indicates that only 10 percent of a population takes life seriously.2 The rest watch TV. The entire generation might be 3-D, but only ten percent represents new Copernicans. Like Copernicus who developed a more complete picture of planetary motion by including the work of Aristarchus, trigonometry, and Ptolemaic data, they seek to develop a more complete picture of life.
We see this happening in China. Ever since the capitalist reforms of Deng Xiaoping the Chinese have been on a binge to make new fortunes. China now exports in six hours as much as it did in all of 1978. But like communism before it, this sort of capitalism has coarsened Chinese society. It has stripped away spiritual traditions. In Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos writes how many Chinese feel this spiritual aridity. The serious ones are studying capitalism from more angles, including revived Confucianism, nationalism, the work of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, and Christianity. They’re new Copernicans.
Jacques Maritain said the church would have to develop a different form of apologetic to influence future generations. How many apologists explain capitalism from the angles these Chinese Copernicans are considering? I don’t know, but my sense is not many. This is why many Christians feel like exiles. They think 3-D, but their church is 2-D, either/or. What they don’t know is that those who claim no faith, religious “nones,” also think 3-D. They share common ground but don’t know it. This is why reframing both as new Copernicans might be the most important thing the church can do at this time.
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1 Mary Meehan, “The Perfect Name For The Next Generation Of Americans,” Forbes, April 15, 2014.
2 Ed Keller & Jon Berry, The Influentials: One American in Ten Tells the Other Nine How to Vote, Where to Eat, and What to Buy (New York: Free Press, 2003).