Moving Out Of The (Generational) Ghetto

Eric Utne, educator, social entrepreneur and founder of the Utne Reader—which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary as the premiere digest of the alternative press—tells Contexts how he’s using his professional and personal experiences to build intergenerational community. Since leaving the Reader in 1999, Utne has sought personal growth through new experiences and has found that perhaps what we’re all really missing is each other.

Contexts: What were your initial goals with the Reader?

Eric Utne: When I was starting the magazine, I thought it was going to be a little newsletter that I could do at my kitchen table. It was going to be a monthly. I had tested the idea with a direct mail package describing a kind of Reader’s Digest for the next generation, and I had written over 2,000 magazines asking them for a free subscription, basically in exchange for the possibility of me excerpting or reviewing articles that they had published. All but a half dozen or so gave them to me, so suddenly I had 2,000 magazines coming to my door. After four issues of a 12 or 16 page newsletter, people were taking us up on our free subscription offer, but when it came time to pay, they weren’t paying. So I suspended publishing, and the choice was either to quit altogether or to redesign it. So I took the summer… and gave them a 128 page bound magazine, which is its current format. And we haven’t suspended that ever since. We just celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The favorite compliment I’ve heard about the magazine over the years is… “It’s so tuned into what’s going on in my life that I look forward to the magazine to find out what’s going on in my life.” So, how did we sort of anticipate the zeitgeist or these sorts of cultural currents? The way we did it was not by our broad reading, that was a part of it, but where the liveliest stuff came from… was when we asked ourselves, what are we interested in? What are we thinking and obsessing about that we haven’t read somewhere but is sort of percolating at the ends of our awareness, kind of right there when we wake up in the morning and are brushing our teeth? Then we’d start looking to see: is there anyone writing about this?

C: You wrote in the Utne Reader that you had left the magazine in order to follow your own advice about achieving personal growth through new experiences. Tell us a little bit about that.

EU: Well, I had published and edited the magazine for 15 years or so. I’d been publishing articles about meditation and other kind of personal growth stuff, as well as various forms of activism, and yet I was basically just at the magazine. I think I may have put it, “I needed to find and feel and follow my heart.” … I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I needed to do it. That led to studying a Tibetan form of heart meditation, and that led to studying something called heart math and that led to reading writings by Rudolf Steiner who talks a lot about what he calls heart thinking, and that led to teaching at my kids’ Waldorf school. I thought I was going to find out more about Steiner’s ideas, but you know, I was up until 2:00 in the morning once or twice a week desperately trying to stay a half step ahead of the students and I didn’t have time to philosophize with other teachers! But, that was my burnout, and I’m very grateful to have been able to do those sorts of investigations and see where they’ve led me.

C: This issue of Contexts is focused on issues related to aging. What are you seeing as some of the real challenges for our society when it comes to aging?
EU: I think there is this desire to serve and to make a difference, but I wouldn’t characterize it necessarily as only in boomers. I think there are a lot of boomers who are not looking to retirement as a time to go play golf and hang out with their grandkids. They want to make a difference, but they want to do it in a way that’s really engaged and that uses them well, so that it’s not just stuffing envelopes, it’s bringing in some of the skills and experience that they’ve developed professionally into their volunteer work, and they’d like some sort of a quid pro quo. They want to have some acknowledgment for that other than just a thanks. I think that’s going to be challenging in a very tight job market.

My big interest for many, many years has been community. How do we really connect with other human beings? My son and his wife and baby are living in a co-housing project on Bainbridge Island outside of Seattle that is the oldest co-housing project in North America, and it’s much more like the way humans have lived for most of the time we’ve been on the planet. I met Margaret Mead years ago, and she said to me, “99.9% of the time that humans have lived on the planet we’ve lived in tribes, groups of 12-36 people. It’s only during times of war or what we have now [that we haven’t].” She called modern life the psychological equivalent of war, that the nuclear family prevails because it’s the most mobile unit that can ensure the survival of the species. She said… the full flowering of the human spirit, that happens in groups, that happens in tribes, that happens in community. 

More recently I’ve been bringing groups of elders, people 50 and over, together with youngers, who are 16-28, to have conversations. The idea was that they would do some project, either social or environmental, for the greater good. But what we’re finding is that people are so busy that the space they create together, this sort of an oasis of non-busyness, of just human connection, is precious to them. So, we set up 20 of these groups in the Twin Cities and then have been running an ad in the Utne Reader with the headline, “Millenials and Boomers Unite.“ I think that the generations have a lot to give to each other, it’s not just about the so-called elders downloading their infinite wisdom, it’s learning how to participate on the web or sharing experiences from a whole different point of view.

C: So why the boomers and the millennials? Is there any particular reason why you focus on those two groups?

EU: It seems like there’s an archetypal potential relationship between them. But any sort of inter-generational conversation is interesting—and I think important—these days, because so often we spend most of our time with people our own age. Basically, we go around in ghettos of like-minded people, people with similar education and income. And we increasingly… all this networking, we call it “community.” But, we haven’t learned how to deal with the other. I think these community conversations are just one step toward that. Often our neighbors are very similar to us in terms of education and income and so on, but at least they can reach across the generations. [Now it seems] we put our old people in nursing homes, our young in daycare centers, our law breakers behind bars, and our people who are thought to be mentally ill or handicapped are otherwise excluded. That’s only in the last few generations. For most of human history we’ve had to deal with people who are different from us—the town hunchback, you know. We’re not so good at dealing with the other anymore; we don’t have that many opportunities.

Most of us have no idea that we’re even missing because we haven’t had an experience of what it’s like to live in community. And that’s living with all the generations where elders have a role. In every other culture, elders help youngers identify their gifts and their role in the community, and that’s just not happening here. So many boomers, I use the word “elder,” and they cringe. They don’t like thinking of themselves as growing older, whereas in every other culture it’s something that’s honored and even revered. And that’s because the elders haven’t abdicated their role of helping the young people identify what their gifts are and their learning tasks and their role in the community. That’s what initiation is and it doesn’t happen in this culture anymore. The young people self-initiate with adrenaline sports and alcohol and drugs and military service or whatever. But it’s not conscious and it’s not institutionalized. And of course there’s lots of things about traditional cultures that are constricting. So how do we learn from cultures that know about community without taking on all the bad stuff? I hope you sociologists will figure that one out!

Hear The Full Interview

Listen to the full interview on the Contexts Podcast!