“WiseGen”…. If Only!

Recently, a wonderful young leader, Seth Cohen of Atlanta, wrote a blog piece advocating that younger leaders and funders would do well to learn from and not dismiss the wisdom of those whose life experience might provide welcome insights for them. He called that older group “WiseGen.”

At first blush, I was inclined to read this as a “shout out” to my own work. After all, for several years, the name of this blog, the address of our website, and our domain name are all ‘WisePhilanthropy.com’, my book is “Saying ‘Yes’ Wisely”. Implicit is that there are things that one can learn from the real life experience of many generations of funders, and that the greatest gift I can give in my teaching and philanthropy advising is to help apply the wisdom of others to individual decision making.

A more honest and humble reading showed me that Mr. Cohen had no such intention. In fact, I suspect he has no clue that I have been using “wise” at all. To the best of my recollection, I have met him only once. I know him best from his active tweets which reflect his regular travel and active involvement in communal affairs. He is one of those who really does seem to justify the title “young leader.”

But back to the theme. Mr. Cohen’s position seems to be a truism on the face of it. Those of us who are guests in this century are smart to learn from those young folk who are reinventing the rules, indeed the game itself. There is much to learn, from technology to worldview, all of which redefine how we relate to each other, to the world at large, to money and to our philanthropic decision-making. We continue uninformed at our own risk.

If it is true that we must learn from a transformed world, it certainly seems evident that not everything that has been learned in the past is vacuous or irrelevant. One would hope that there are wise elders, even in these days, who may have something to share. One would expect that not everything must be learned anew. And that the smartest of the younger thinkers are wise enough to know that. I am privileged to know many such people.

Yet what struck me about the range of published comments and tweets that I had occasion to see in response to Mr. Cohen’s piece was that, with very few exceptions, the responses were from those who were older who felt enfranchised and legitimated by his article. Very few of the responses were from the generation of smart younger people who might endorse his insights and affirm his insight. [Of course it is possible that there is an entire range of discussion going on in a parallel universe of people whom I have neither “friended” nor “twitter” connected.]

This shows, I suspect, how far we have to go. I am of several minds on this dilemma:

1. In my early career, I worked on campus. Each year a group of high energy students arrived on campus with their own ideas. My experience had shown that not all of these ideas were viable and many had flopped in previous incarnations. But what I had to learn was that for younger people, if they didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. And I had to learn that part of the learning experience is precisely to have successes and failures of ones own. I, as an only barely elder professional, could help direct the conversation, but only in rare circumstances was it wise for me to intervene in the creative process of young adults finding their own way – even if destined for failure.

When I observe many of the discussions among younger funders, I am tempted to intervene but it is clear to me that most of them want to own their own learning and decision making process. [When I am facilitating intergenerational discussions, my job is to mediate between generations who often find themselves at loggerheads at exactly this point in the discussion.]

2. It may be that too many of my generation are still defensive in the face of the massive societal changes we are experiencing. Some of this is legitimate – not all changes are necessarily for the good. But I suspect much of this defensiveness is motivated by a sense of growing irrelevance. Or by a belief that nothing is really different at all – it is just old wine in new bottles and that if the older folk simply learn the new vocabulary, all will be normal in the world.

3. It is my belief that what is going on at this moment in history is not an intergenerational conflict of values. If anything, the younger 2 generations affirm their parents’ values more completely than was true in the 60’s and 70’s. What is going on though, is something more pervasive, and that is an experience of the world which is radically and rapidly changing which impacts everything from politics to money to epistemology to authority to relationships to concepts of community. If so, the reluctance of many of the most attuned younger folk to endorse a “WiseGen” concept is because they view it as besides the point. None would argue that experience matters – and that many older folks are wise. What they would argue, or at least behave as if they would – is that older folks are rarely in a position to translate that wisdom into current life experience.

4. The final point is whether we deserve the WiseGen label? If one observes world inaction on the environment, paralysis in the face of genuine genocidal behavior in Darfur, lip-service to addressing the corruption which keeps people hungry in too many places, obstructionism and heartless public policies in the United States, can it be said that our generation has acted so wisely or prudently or responsibly or compassionately that we deserve such a respectful label. Many individuals and npo/ngo’s do care and try, but to be worthy of a “generation” label, it is the sum total of our action and inaction which defines us. Perhaps the true reason the “WiseGen” label hasn’t caught on is because, sadly, we may not deserve it.

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning and regularly blogs at Wise Philanthropy.