Changed Price Tags


“Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.” Psalm 71:18

This topic has been ruminating in my mind for several years.  It addresses some of the root causes of why the millennials are different from prior generations.  I have found that the profile of the American millennials is somewhat universal.  The next generations in Africa and Asia often act like and think like the American millennial.  The title suggests that the values (or price tags) of the millennials has changed over time and gives some glimpse into the causes, at least for America.

My title comes from Tony Compolo, a well-known Christian sociologist from Philadelphia, who authored a book entitled Who Switched the Price Tags several years ago in the late 1980’s. As the title suggests, Tony explores how culture and demographics, over time, changes even if at an imperceptible rate.  In America, the changes didn’t happen overnight but, over the course of a century, family dynamics were transformed by the shift from rural to urban environments.  His research included a lengthy visit to live on farm in the Midwest and observe what life looks like in rural America at the end of the century.  In 1900, America’s population consisted of 80% living in a rural environment and 20% lived in urban centers.  By the end of the 20th century, that had reversed, with 80% of our population living in or near a city and only 20% in a rural area.

His observations give a penetrating glimpse at how that statistical change has been an influence in shaping the millennials today even though it was written before most millennials today were born.  On the farm and in a rural context, farm life provided schedules that dictated how life was lived. For example, the average family unit consisted of 5 or more people – two adults and 3 or 4 children versus an average of 1.2 children per family today.  Everyone including the children at an appropriate age had jobs to do to around the farm, whether it was milking cows or helping in the fields.  Each member of the family was actually a positive economic benefit to the family because their work helped the productivity of the farm which is how they earned a living.  They also observed daily rhythms of life and ate meals together.  Dinner was always at 6 pm, and if you missed it, you were on your own and your absence only meant there was more food for everyone else.  No exceptions.  My daughter calls this “YOYO” – You’re On Your Own.

Fast forward to 2000 where the average family has evolved to the point that meals together is a luxury. In fact, in the average home, mealtime revolves around the children’s schedules – their soccer practice, dance recital, and other extra-curricular activities.  And most parents would admit that their children do not have a positive economic impact; quite the contrary, they have a negative impact.  Compolo goes on to lament that we have raised a generation of kids who have been catered to all of their life by their parents.   Their parents unwittingly have indulged them to the point that their kids don’t want to become adults because of this pampering.  And Tony soberly adds: “Who can blame them?”.  Why would they want to become adults in that kind of environment?

Another book written in the 1990’s by Gail Sheehy entitled New Passages gives a look at these changes from a slightly different perspectiveIt was a rewrite of a book entitled Passages which was written in the early 1980’s, and she decided to revisit her thesis 10 years later to see if it was still valid.   The author observes that the social benchmarks of aging have all been pushed back or changed significantly by at least 10 years.  We used to consider 21 as being the age when an adolescent is considered an adult.  Studies by Pew and Barna now show that adolescence now extends into the late 20’s and for some, into their early 30’s.

Middle age was previously identified with being in your 40’s, and it now starts in your 50’s.  The age of 65 was the accepted benchmark for being “old” since it was often associated with retirement age.  At the time I first read this book, I think I had just turned 50, and was delighted to know that I had gotten 10 years back and was just entering middle age!   Both books, in their own way, point to some of the causes of the attitudes and lives of today’s next generation – a generation that has a prolonged adolescence because they don’t want to be adults.  While these books were written before many of today’s millennials had been born, they are instructive as to why this next generation is different from prior ones.

A humorous take at the millennials is on the video – it points out the wanderings of the millennials but ends on a sober note:

So the challenge here is to assess how we help the next generation – the millennials – become adults. In his book, Compolo pushes us to “risk more, reflect more, and do things of lasting value.” I’m not sure that as parents, much will change in your household.  As most parents readily will agree, when your child becomes an adolescent, they become “deaf” overnight, and they will often tune out their parents’ advice.

But the adolescent (in their 20’s) has a strong interest in listening to another adult – a mature person who is not related to them – who will be authentic with them and help them along their path.  That person may be you – you may be the mentor that they are looking for, although it never occurred to you that you could be an influence in some young person’s life.  Take time to pray about helping someone in the next generation – you are in a position to influence their life’s trajectory and can be that resource that puts them on track.

Bill Mann



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