A Once in a (Five Generation) Opportunity:
Using FiveGen Thinking to Help Reshape the Jewish Community

By Seth Cohen

From generation to generation… l’dor v’ dor. It must be one of the most frequently evoked concepts in sermons, board meetings, B’nai Mitzvah speeches, retirement parties, and pretty much all transitional Jewish celebrations. We say it to simultaneously celebrate continuity while subtly acknowledging self-limitation. Unstated, but implied, is the recognition of the role each unique generation plays in the grand arc of our people and our history.

But let’s be honest, along with the well-intended acknowledgement of the importance of other generations, there is also the quiet (and not so quiet) complaining about them as well. Sometimes it is in small private conversations, and sometimes it spills out into the open – in board meetings, community conversations, and even in the media. Younger generations complain that older ones won’t get out of the way. Older generations lament that younger ones are not as committed, connected, etc. And all generations say the other ones don’t “get it.”

It’s an age old (or young age) problem. But I believe in 2019 we are at an amazing moment when the Jewish community can truly embrace the concept of l’dor v’dor in an innovative five-fold way.

What do I mean? As I wrote in January, for the first time in modern workforce history, we have five generations working and engaging with one another in our communities. Members of the Silent Generation (born before 1945), along with the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millenials and Gen Y are all sharing work space, community space and even sacred spaces. It’s getting as crowded as it is confusing.

Yet, rather than collaborating, the five generations seem to simply cohabiting the present moment. And where for some that is a disheartening challenge, in my opinion it creates an unparalleled opportunity at a time when we need it more than ever.

In our local communities, synagogues, temples, service organizations and federations/foundations, are grappling with new realties. Changes in affiliation are intersecting with new financial realties. While younger generations want to see their communities reflect their identities and interests, older generations (which aren’t so old) want to also feel a sense of energy and inclusion in their communities.

This isn’t easy stuff to navigate. Yet that’s not all.

On a national/international level we are facing a rising wave of anti-Semitism at the same time we are struggling with an Israel/Diaspora relationship that feels like it is fraying at its seams (oftentimes as the result of the difference in generational perspectives on Israel). Legacy organizations that helped glue our community together in times of past conflict are themselves being challenged regarding their own relevance.

In other words, we have a lot of work to do. The good thing is that we have a lot of people who can help – five generations of people, and no single generation can do it alone.

Plenty has been written about the importance of “NextGen” engagement, and I have written (over eight years ago!) about the need to harness the power of “WiseGen” – older generations whose perspectives and experiences are too often undervalued and under-engaged. But more than ever I believe we need a better dialogue in our organizations and communities about how WiseGens and the NextGens can find common ground.

Just like the high-speed 5G cellular technology that increases bandwidth capacity for our smartphones to become faster/better/stronger, enhanced FiveGen community capability can also help us respond to these challenges in faster/better/stronger ways. But to do so, we need some generational humility. We need to start having different (and healthier) interactions among the five generations.

So how can we do that?

I suggest five modest approaches that we should keep at the front of our minds (and our communities).

  1. Focus on What We Say. Sometimes words do matter more than action, and no matter how inclusive organizations intend to act, their language signals something different. When organizations speak too much of “NextGen” and “young leadership,” they marginalize those who don’t identify with those terms. Similarly, suggesting that members of younger generations “wait your turn” and “pay your dues” can be triggering for those who feel committed, but not included. To repair this problem, organizations should spend more time fostering and expressing more inclusive language across all generations.
  2. Focus on Who We Include. Far too often we are myopic in our community vision and, regardless of our generation, we include those people who “are just like us.” Then, paradoxically, we wonder why the other generations aren’t showing up for our efforts. Building cross-generation communities means thinking inclusively about every element of experience design (which itself should be an inclusive project). A relentless pursuit of “who” will result in reinvigorating the possibility of “all” generational inclusion.
  3. Focus on What We Can Learn. Perhaps one of the biggest missed opportunities across the generations is our ability to learn together. Too often we segment our learning experiences based on age/generation, “aging out” older generations from certain learning experiences. While there are some educational forums that are generation agnostic (Limmud being a great example), there are far too few of these types of high-quality experiences. This means we are missing the opportunity for generations to have educational dialogues that help foster common understanding, particularly about common heritage and present challenges.
  4. Focus on What We Address. Not every challenge facing the Jewish community is intergenerational and some, by their nature, are truly relevant to only part of our community. But many challenges do have intergenerational implications where all generations can share empathy and even experiences. These challenges provide a great opportunity for the generations to begin working more closely together, building greater familiarity with the different generational styles at play, as well as building a stronger sense of intergenerational trust.
  5. Focus on the Stories We Tell. Professor Marshall Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School has an amazing approach to teaching public narrative by helping leaders to focus sharing three stories: the story of me, the story of us, and the story of now. This framework would be a great place to start for FiveGen work. While each generation has its “me” story, there are ways to nurture the “story of us” – the stories we all share regardless of our generation. The more we share those stories with one another (in the type of language that helps our stories be heard by all the generations), the more we can also focus on the story of now – that is, the way we address shared calls to action.

These five strategies, along with greater appreciation for the professional resources (and effort) it will take to implement them, can help us maximize this once in a lifetime opportunity. But to do so we need to move beyond old paradigms of generation division and move towards a greater understanding of intergeneration possibility.

If we do, then we can make sure that l’dor v’ dor isn’t just a cliché, but a call to action –  one heard by five generations, as well as those yet to come.

Seth Cohen is the founder of Applied Optimism, a consulting and experience design lab that helps organizations and communities design optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. Seth can be reached at seth@appliedoptimism.com and at www.appliedoptimism.com