You've heard of the Forgotten Generation. That term is usually used when referring to Generation X, those born between 1961-1981. Pinched between the influence-wielding Baby Boomers and the entitled-yet-socially-conscience Millenials, Generation X doesn't get much fanfare. Though they were the ones who launched MTV. They saw and developed the beginning of the internet. They were emotionally charged teenagers during the cold war and sexually restrained due to the AIDS epidemic. ET, Jaws, The Breakfast Club along with a serious amount of awesome music was their cultural experience. Pretty great stuff.
So why refer to them as forgotten? This term is mainly due to the financial hand Generation X was dealt. Gen X is projected to have the biggest drop in net worth of any demographic group, after blows to the real estate market, job market, and stock market during their formative earning and saving years. Forgotten in this instance isn't a literal description, it is a descriptor of a financially diminished generation with a solid work ethic who keep their heads down and just keep on keeping on.
Many in Generation X are children of Baby Boomers. Gen X'ers grew up knowing not to ask about family finances. They knew to "get out of the house and be home by dark", and my favorite, do it "because I said so".
That oldie but goody may be the very reason that many Boomers are at risk of being forgotten. "Because they said so".
Lets take a closer look at these Boomers, those born between 1946-1964, all 76 million of them. They make up a whopping 20% of the US population. This generation wields tremendous influence due to sheer numbers, attained wealth, buying power, and their redefinition of all previous traditional values. Their backdrop includes Star Wars, Disco, Motown and Woodstock. This generation dragged the Vietnam War out of the shadows and took down a president. For the first time in history, they left their kids at home watching Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch while mom and dad both went off to work. Simply put, they did things "their way", like it or not.
This generation is currently criticized as being self indulgent, stubborn, opinionated, and competitive while praised for being independent, resourceful, individualistic and creative.
It turns out Boomers are also generous. As a generation they are the most prolific donors to philanthropic causes in history. In their later years, they are giving away an estimated $61.9 billion dollars a year, according to Forbes Magazine.
Like most humans, they want to leave their mark. They buy a plaque at the library with their name on it or a brick at the stadium with an irreverent quote and their nickname. They pay to see their name in the annual charity ball program and they donate to the PBS telethon. All of these are admirable philanthropic pursuits.
My question, why do they find value in this type of legacy and not one that matters far more, marking their place in their own family history?
Why, if Boomers seem so passionate to be remembered on one hand, are they trying so hard to be forgotten? I mean forgotten in the literal sense, as in, don't stop to remember me, don't gather to tell stories about me, don't write those stories down to be saved and don't leave a marker on the planet. For many Boomers the mantra seems to be; burn - scatter – move on, "because I said so".
To treat the end of your life as an insignificant disappearing act may seem cool or as if "doing it my way", but there can be serious consequences to those left behind. The same latchkey kids that went home after school to an empty house are "burying" their parents in accordance with their parents’ wishes, then finding themselves not mourning fully, not moving through the loss completely and suffering lingering depression and grief.
In their final act, their parents are making it about themselves. The problem with that is that much of the end of life planning, including memorial celebrations, are actually for those left behind. Why is there often no service or celebration of life? Why is there no permanent marker with the family name on it? Because their parents didn't want one. Why? Because "they said so".
60% of Boomers want to be cremated, many want it done quickly, with no fanfare and with as little expense or celebration as possible.
Cremation makes perfect sense. Who doesn't want a smaller environmental footprint? Scattering the remains in a place they loved- great idea. Move on with no memorial service or marker- bad idea.
Here's the problem for the Gen X children. Grief is a process. Sometimes it is a long process. Study after study has shown that the grieving process happens in waves and goes in stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Another problem is that we can get stuck on a step or skip steps altogether and then have trouble moving forward. Grieving the loss of a parent fully and getting back to a healthy mental state can take years.
One of the most important things we can do to move through grief in the healthiest way possible is to stop and honor the person who died. Gather with friends and tell stories about the person. Video the gathering. Write the best stories down and keep them.
Jump to the end stage of grief, all the way to acceptance, and we may find that this is the step where a marker has the most impact. To have a place to visit, for many people, can help them accept the fact that while their loved one is gone, they won't be forgotten.
As a Gen Xer at 49 years of age, I can honestly say that after watching my parents build their lives, strive, succeed and now retire, it is very important to me that they mark the fact that they were here. For them as well as for me and for my children’s children. I see the pride in my boys' faces when they learn about where they’ve come from. The sense of importance that comes over them.
My biological father died when I was 13 years old. He was lost at sea. No body. No grave. Just gone. Twenty years later I was having a conversation with my aunt, his sister, and I told her how unsettling it felt to me that his life was not permanently memorialized. She heard me and within a year she had a granite bench installed at the cemetery where my grandparents ashes are interred. My husband and our two sons, 6 and 9 at the time, made the pilgrimage to Port Huron, Michigan. I sat on the bench and cried. I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief that there is a place in our world where my father will be remembered. He was here. He mattered. And knowing him, he would not have wanted it. He would have wanted nothing at all.
So what can be done to keep Baby Boomers from determining their own fate and being forgotten? The key may actually lie in the special connection between them and their Millennial grandchildren.
The relationship between grandparent and grandchild is sacred. Most parents just don't understand it. It transcends social constructs and just is the way it is.
So lets take a look at these secret weapons- the Millennails. They are the first generation in history to outnumber the Boomers. This generation gets their fare share of negative press but they are also known to care about family, social issues and the planet. They have a deep collective social conscience that pervades much of their decision making and purchase decisions. They are deeply interested in connection. So interested in fact that they are permanently inking connection onto their own bodies. If you see a Millennial with tattoos, stop and ask them about them. You will often hear, this one is for my grandmother or grandfather. I find this a fascinating trend, not to be ignored. There is actually a tattooing process that embeds cremated ashes into tattoo ink. Sound gross or unbelievable, ask a Millennial about it. You may have an eye opening conversation about remembrance and what really matters to them.
If more Boomers knew how important family history and marking it is to their grandchildren, they might be far more family focused in their end of life planning.
Being the individuals that they are, when Baby Boomers do participate in their end of life planning, they are doing it their way with creativity, flair and irreverence. Here are just a few examples;
- Have their sailing club scatter them at sea on the roughest possible day (must be off the bow as that's the section of the boat they worked)
- Sprinkle them on every hole of their favorite golf course while toasting 100 year old scotch (don't forget to pour a little scotch on their ashes each time you toast)
- Hold that annual poker game and deal them in (and no one gets to look at their cards)
- Toss the ashes from a helicopter into the active volcano on Kīlauea along with their Rolex, and their car keys.
- Drop their ashes along a section of the Appalachian trail at sunset
- Bury their ashes on the property of their arch nemesis. Let the nemesis know the ashes are buried on their property "somewhere".
- Have them made into a reef ball and sunk off the Florida Keys as a fish habitat neptunesociety.com
- Launch them into outer space and either leave them there or bring them back after the ashes have "experienced" zero gravity celestis.com
All great ideas. But in two generations, are any of these end of life plans helping them be remembered. And the real question, did any of this give those left behind something to hold onto? Did any of it help them to move through their grief?
So what can Boomers do to be more considerate in their final act? They could simply ask. Ask their children and grandchildren what they need. Ask what they would like to see in an end of life service. Do they want a large or small memorial? Would they rather it be formal or informal? Would they like a permanent marker or not?
Some additional things Boomers could do for their families;
- They could record their life story as they get older; write it down, do an audio recording or video themselves.
- Purchase that memorial brick at the college stadium and let their family know that it will be there in pepituity representing the family.
- Create a recipe book to pass down with details about where each family recipe came from and the story behind them.
- Make a donation to their favorite national park and have their name etched in stone on a bench or building. Hell, have it etched on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
- Have their DNA tested and leave the report along with other highly personal items to be kept in their In Loving Memory Box. ancestrydna.com
As one of the most formidable generations in American history, the Boomers shouldn’t be so quick to literally become The Forgotten Generation. They should be generous enough to understand that they are part of a continuing family history. A history worth remembering.
My son Jackson, 6 years old, tracing the letters of my father's name with his finger.