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Hopes rise for the next generation

Soldiers, we are told, are always trained to fight the last war, rather than the next one. But why malign only the military? Most of us are baffled as we try to understand what’s coming next.

But at least we should try. Intentionally turning away from the reality of change invites disaster.

True, the consequences of looking back rather than forward aren’t usually as awful for most of us as they were for, say, the generals in what was called the Great War, just a century ago, who sent orders by battlefield couriers to troops hauling cannons by mule, only to see their soldiers wiped out by poison gas and by history’s first aerial bombardments.

Mostly what comes from stubborn insistence on yesterday’s solutions is just more trouble for those who come next. Rather than expect the next generation to adopt the priorities of those who came before it, it’s smarter to do the best you can during your day in the sun, and then recognize that dawn breaks on others’ shoulders, and their day may be lived differently than yours.

This is underscored by a report issued this week by Goldman Sachs looking at research into the millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000. They’re different from boomers and GenXers, these millennials are, and recognizing that fact is important for us older folks. (Please excuse me as I take a deep breath after this reluctant“older” admission. And see previous column of wishful thinking about gray hair finally becoming cool.)

There are a lot of ways people between ages 15 and 35 are going to change America — mainly, I’d say, for the better:

Almost one-third of millennials say they don’t plan to buy a car — ever. That’s astounding in a society that for a century has been wedded to its chariots. Partly it’s because a growing share of younger people prefer urban living, where cars aren’t needed. They say they'll walk, bike or use car-sharing and mass transit. This is good news for air quality, and for those who are investing in our cities. Take note, you who advocate for renewal in Troy, Schenectady, Albany and our other cities: Your time is at hand.

Millennials aren’t sold on marriage. In 1968, 56 percent of adults from ages 18 to 31 were married and living in their own homes. In 2012, that had dropped to 23 percent. While 93 percent of millennials say they want to own a home “someday,” they’re in no hurry to do the whole home-and-kids thing: The median marriage age in this decade is 30, compared to 23 in the 1970s. And 60 percent of older millennials (above age 25) are renting, not buying, a jump of 15 percent in just eight years. We need more apartments and small housing units to accommodate those who are waiting to assume the glorious burdens of the mortgage.

Millennials care about being fit, and it’s not just because they want to look good. While almost half of boomers define “healthy” as “not falling sick,” that definition is adopted by only 29 percent of millennials; rather, they’re almost twice as likely as boomers to say that healthy means daily exercise. If you run a workplace, you’d better get used to millennials taking time for a run or a gym workout And twice as many millennials say that healthy means “eating right,” which helps explain the crowd of hip folks at farmers markets. It’s also good news for small farmers.

“Millennials have come of age during a time of technological change, globalization and economic disruption,” the Goldman Sachs report says .“That’s given them a different set of behaviors and experiences than their parents.”

It may have made them more realistic than their parents, too. A poll commissioned last year by Microsoft and the Clinton Global Initiative found that while two-thirds of the generation see “solid evidence” the Earth is getting warmer, and three-fourths of those say human activity is to blame, 57 percent believe they'll worsen the Earth’s condition in their lifetimes.

If you’re disappointed by that breakdown of the traditional optimism of youth, blame the boomers, not their kids. My generation grew up thinking that things would always get better, that we could consume resources to our hearts’ content, and that technology could solve any problem we might confront — because, after all, that’s how life went for our parents, and how surely it would for us. So we have made choices that spoiled the climate, strangled the economy and sickened ourselves with inactivity and bad food choices.

That is, living by the rules of the previous generation, we haven’t done so well for ourselves or our kids.

Maybe the generation that is about to take its place in leadership will do better. Maybe they'll better the world by fighting on their own terms, not ours.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Share your thoughts at

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