THE BLOG

Millennials Remind Us All to Search for Meaning

03/12/2015 06:25 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Too many people still speak of a generation gap. Young adults are different. They are 'The Self(ie) Generation.' They only care about themselves and don't treat their elders with respect.

This language feels particularly strident if heard in religious and ethical communities that hold in high esteem altruism, compassion, and respect for those with more life's experience.

A growing body of data suggests it is also unfounded. Millennials deeply admire their parents and grandparents. To take a few statistics from a 2010 Pew study of Millennials,

Millennials respect their elders. A majority say that the older generation is superior to the younger generation when it comes to moral values and work ethic. Also, more than six-in-10 say that families have a responsibility to have an elderly parent come live with them if that parent wants to. By contrast, fewer than four-in-10 adults ages 60 and older agree that this is a family responsibility.

Further,

The public may see generations as different in fundamental ways, but most do not see them as being in conflict. Only 26 percent say there are strong conflicts between young people and older people today. More than two-thirds (68 percent) say that conflicts are either not very strong or nonexistent.

But we need not look at statistics to see the positive rapport between generations. Just take a look at Millennials themselves. They are visibly trying to look like their parents and grandparents.

Skinny ties are in. So are big-rimmed glasses and maxi-dresses. If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Millennials are waxing poetic about their parents and grandparents.

But it isn't just confined to clothes. Millennials are engaged in a search for meaning and authenticity. They look to the past as a guide to a present that is so filled with change. They look to ethical morays from Greek classics, recipes from their grandmothers' kitchens, pop music with undertones from Fiddler on the Roof, furniture made of reclaimed wood, and records of new music played on their parents' college turn tables. They look to their parents and grandparents for advice about how to approach such a rapidly changing world.

My own group of friends (yes, I too am a Millennial) has a tradition of gathering on Sunday nights for a meal together - a meal we actually refer to as "Family Dinner." Everyone brings a side dish or wine, and we talk about literature, art, and music and then settle in for a game of football or episode of Game of Thrones. Our friend Brian is even working on developing his own pasta sauce recipe, because every foodie of Italian descent ought to have a signature red sauce.

Our search for authenticity is palpable. We want something that we know is time-tested and true. We want everything, even the new, to feel old. We are looking for tradition and a sense of rootedness. Above all, the Millenial generation is searching for that which transcends time and remains true in an era of change.

To me as a rabbi, it feels as though Judaism (and perhaps quite a few other religious and ethical traditions) were made for such a generation. What is Judaism, the religion I know best, if not about constancy and change, evolution, and connection to the transcendent through the metaphors of our time?

The Reform Movement of Judaism, of which I am a part, was founded on the ancient rabbinic principle of purposeful change over time. Our movement furthered Judaism as a living, evolving tradition, able to adapt to new technologies and ideas. Ours is a movement intended to reinvent itself every generation. But it cannot do so without giving us all moments of unease.

My fear is not the presence of a generation gap but the invention of one. Many experience anxiety at the Millennial search - the big questions and search for that which is constant in a world of change. For their search underscores just how much our world is indeed changing.

Yet the opportunity Millennials afford us is to explore with them and search with them, to strive with them and, yes, even to feel lost with them. As a part of the Tribe initiative for Millennial Jews in New York, I can speak firsthand of its impact.

Rather than invalidate their search, we should join the Millennial search. For it is not one unique to their generation, but rather inherent to many traditions.

Many of the stories we hold sacred suggest the need for a search, even when it evokes uncertainty. Moses didn't as a young adult leave Egypt knowing what he would find in the wilderness. Abraham didn't depart from his home to a land he knew.

What Millennials remind us all is of the eternal call for search - search for truth, meaning, and relationship; for our inner selves; for what remains true during a time of change.

What is unique about Millennials is the open door that they leave for people of all ages to join them.