Boomers, Millennials, and the Growing Tension: Nine Lessons in Generational Dynamics

The first of the Baby Boomers are turning 65 this year, just as their generational progeny, the so-called “Millennials,” are hitting their thirties. With one massive generation approaching retirement, while another even larger group seeks to establish itself in the adult world, it’s a recipe for generational tension.

The Boomers were born in the post-WWII birthrate “boom” from 1946 to about 1965. After this significant two-decade spike, there was a kind of birthrate recession from about 1965 to 1980—referred to as “Generation X.” Then followed from about 1980 through the end of the century a kind of “echo boom,” as the Boomers produced offspring en masse and the birthrate again soared. These Boomer kids have been called “Generation Y,” among other things, but the label that is gaining most traction seems to be “Millennials.”

Here Come the Millennials

On the heels of prolonged adolescence, the oldest of the Millennials are just now (at long last) marrying, having kids of their own, and beginning to settle down. They are establishing themselves in the workforce and increasingly taking leadership roles in the companies and organizations in which they are involved.

Enter the generational tension. And with it, as Don Carson writes in the lead editorial of Themelios, comes age-old generational conflict in ministry. The potential for clash isn’t just for the work world.

Nine Lessons in Generational Dynamics

The Scriptures have much to say about generations, but one place where the generational air is particularly thick is in the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus). Here, Paul (our Boomer counterpart) is nearing the end of his life and passing the gospel baton to his spiritual progeny in Timothy and Titus (our Millennials). It’s especially acute in 2 Timothy, as Paul senses himself on death’s doorstep.

Here are nine lessons in generational dynamics gleaned from the Pastoral Epistles:

  1. Not only are there discernable and important differences among men and women, but also among younger adults and older adults—differences which aren’t to be ignored but observed, appreciated, honored, and approached in a manner similar to familial relationships (1 Timothy 5:1-2; 2 Timothy 2:22; Titus 2:2-8).
  2. Those of the younger generation should have a disposition to follow those who are godly and faithful to the gospel from the older generation (2 Timothy 3:10).
  3. The older generation should lead the younger, not through presumption or privilege, but through lived-out example and Bible instruction (2 Timothy 3:14-15).
  4. There is a sense in which faith can be passed from generation to generation — and it happens not just in general but through particular older persons to particular younger persons (2 Timothy 1:5).
  5. There is great potential in Jesus for deep and significant personal relationships between generations — even closer than father and son (1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; 2:1; Titus 1:4).
  6. Not only are the older to care for the younger, but there comes a time when the direction of caregiving is reversed — and it becomes appropriate for the younger generation to “make some return” to the older (1 Timothy 5:4).
  7. Younger adults can, and where fitting should, lead (be examples for) older adults (1 Timothy 4:12).
  8. There is a beauty to seeing ourselves not just in relation to our own generation but in the train of God's people through the ages spanning generation after generation (2 Timothy 1:3; note, even with the significant new era of redemptive history in which Paul saw himself living, as a first generation Christian, he still rejoiced at the points of continuity with his ancestors before him).
  9. We should not only think about receiving the gospel from the generation ahead of us, but also of passing it to the generation after us — and in such a way that they are equipped to pass it on to another generation who will pass it on to another (2 Timothy 2:2). And so the older generation would be wise to remember what it was like to be younger, and the younger generation would be wise to keep in mind that one day soon it will be the older.

Reason for Great Hope

Where pessimism might pervade generational tensions in the workplace, the church should have great hope. In the gospel, the church has a resource like no other for spanning generational divides.

No institution, organization, entity, or group on the planet has more reason to turn the lemon of generational tension into the lemonade of generational harmony than the Church. Jesus himself is building his Church. And Jesus himself is the great meeting place of peoples who would otherwise be at odds — and his value is seen in diverse peoples coming together because of him. The cross is the common ground where Boomers and Millennials and even Gen Xers can stand together.

Common Ground at the Cross

When our Redeemer and Great Reconciler and his gospel are what we hold “as of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), we are empowered, as Carson advises in his editorial, to listen to those with different preferences, evaluate fairly and change as needed, and be proactive in reaching across generational lines.

When generational tension arises, consciously returning to Jesus’ person and work as who/what we hold most precious reorients our spiritual compass and so gives us the wherewithal to hear critique; empowers us to evaluate and change by the cross being the place where we rest our feet rather than somewhere else; and causes us to take Jesus-like initiative to foster relationships with others not in our same group.

Resourced in the Redeemer

When Jesus is our great treasure, we see that our lifelong preferences aren’t our ultimate hope, and we can actually become eager to have them changed if it means less barriers to the younger generation embracing and living out the gospel.

When the gospel is of first importance, we see God loves to confound the wisdom of the world that would say we must be cutting-edge to reach people. We see that the power for real change and real church-building is in Jesus, not in our youthful energy and ability to discern how to really connect with the younger generation. God’s power is not in our marketing savvy, but in the Spirit-strengthened message of Jesus crucified and risen for sinners.

When the cross is our salvation and daily strength, we’re eager to crucify our pride, and our love for self and for our own type and our comfort and our way, and take the extra steps to reach across generations with kindness, grace, and a listening ear.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor at desiringGod.org and an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He has edited several books, including Thinking. Loving. Doing., Finish the Mission, and Acting the Miracle, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.