Reframing Worries About the Future

As a parent of young adults, I often talk with my peers about the unexpected paths our kids are choosing. Once, we had thought that after they’d been well educated, they would pursue careers as we had. While some still follow this path, more and more of them do not.

A friend’s 20-something son is back home after international travel (now a matter-of-fact stage for many middle-class young adults.) He’s tired of minimal income, but not yet sure about the idea (which his parents favor) of going back to school. Chuckling over his parents wishful thought that they could influence his choice, I joked that they should tell him NOT to go back to school.

Another friend tells of her son’s satisfaction with entrepreneurial work, so different from what they anticipated. Glad that he is content, his parents are nevertheless wringing their hands over his lack of interest in participation in Jewish life. What can they do to influence this, they wonder?

Our kids aren’t necessarily aspiring to the careers that their parents and grandparents valued. This week, I visited a young Jewish couple who have chosen to live in a rural “Eco Village community — a back-to-the-land intentional community that feels more “real” than the suburban life in which they were raised. They are not alone.

Underlying huge changes in our world, our economy, and our Internet-driven lives is a huge shift in the paths that Millenials and GenX’ers are choosing. With that comes parental and communal anxiety about their dreams for the future. Will our children marry? Will they have children? Fewer do marry and many marry later, and have fewer children, if any. Will they sustain the Jewish traditions and values of their grandparents? They seem to be seeking different paths.

Marked changes in Jewish identity and connection are evident for the next generation. Denominational identification, synagogue affiliation, Jewish charitable giving, etc., are slipping for 20-30-somethings. This shouldn’t surprise us when we view it through the prism of the dramatically different world of this generation.

Palpable anxiety is gripping the Jewish community regarding the Jewish future. But that worried confusion is only part of the story. Our children are also worried – they are worried about the world they have inherited and its manifold problems: environmental degradation and global warming, racism and xenophobia, poverty and increasing income inequality, violence and divisiveness, and an American political system corrupted by big money.

In fact, our children’s worries are the picture of the Jewish future, an expression of our hopes for a world repaired. The sages of the Talmud worried about the future too. They reassured their community that they could relax – teach your children well, and they will carry Torah forward into their lives and the world. “Bring Me good guarantors and I will give [Torah] to you. They said: ‘Our children shall be our guarantors.’ To which the Holy One replied: ‘Surely, these are good guarantors; for their sake I will give it to you.’” (Song of Songs Rabbah 1:23)

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