The heat seeking missile of generational change

A 2016 gathering of members of the “ReGen” organization for young professionals on the Iron Range. Regen and other initiatives show that the region is more than just miners and loggers pushing retirement age. (ReGen Facebook photo)

This week I’ll be taking part in Policy and a Pint, a discussion series sponsored by the Citizen’s League and MPR’s The Current. The event, titled “Talent Within the Range,” runs from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. (Tickets are free; sign up here). In honor of the occasion, I’ll be visiting themes related to the future of the Iron Range workforce here at the blog this week. Today’s entry explores the generational divide on the Iron Range.


In the classic 1990 film “The Hunt for Red October,” based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, a Cold War Soviet submarine captained by a defector seeks to escape Soviet subs chasing it. Meanwhile, paradoxically, the mostly unaware American Navy tries to stop it. Amid the fog of the movie’s underwater climax, a Soviet sub captain fires a torpedo at the Red October. In a deft maneuver, an American sub helps Sean Connery’s Capt. Marko Ramius dodge the torpedo, which then circles the battle looking for a new target.

As the weapon tracks toward the Soviet sub that fired it, the Russian executive officer tells his captain. “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed us.” And then, kablooey. The Soviets did themselves in. Moreover, they gave cover for the Americans to accept the defecting group of officers and their sophisticated new Soviet submarine.

If you can tolerate a tortured metaphor, that reminds me very much of the situation facing young professionals here in Northern Minnesota. More broadly, younger adults in rural areas around the country recognize this problem.

See, Generation X and Millennials are like the officers of the Red October. They grew up in an analog world and watched as seismic technological and cultural change happened before their eyes. They don’t fit in the world of the Baby Boomers or the so-called “Greatest Generation,” whose crumbling institutional architecture still dominate our landscape. But they know it.

This group of people now in their 30s and 40s, just turning 50 on the top end, knows a lot about the way things were. And they know that those times fade away. True, some simply ignore the situation and hope for the best. But many others seek to “defect” from the old thinking. They want to enact new ideas to fundamentally change what’s not working. This group of people is already taking over the world, and soon enough they’ll control Northern Minnesota, too. Political lines will be drawn between reform and entrenchment.

And the missile looking for a target? That would be Generation Y. Today’s high school seniors represent the oldest members of this generation. They grew up fully immersed in the internet, and completely separated from seminal events of the 20th Century — including WWII, the Vietnam War, the fall of the Soviet Union and even the Clinton Administration. Those events concerned their grandparents and great-grandparents, but not them. They’ve probably never seen “The Hunt for Red October,” which could be a problem for this entire conceit.

The point is that this generation is untethered from the conventional thinking of the past. Their conventional thinking is tied to their interpretations of events that confound and disturb their grandparents. For the most part they’ve been told their whole lives that things are bad. And they are bad for some people, but by and large this is the most prosperous time in American history. So with access to both resources and angst, young people look for a purpose. They’re looking to “do well” by measures that cannot and probably should not meet the expectations of the past.

GenZ will be the biggest generation of our lifetimes. They will swamp GenX and Millennials far faster than those groups displaced the baby boomers. And they’re making up their minds about everything right now. Think about that when you scan the headlines on the major news sites or watch TV news and late night shows.

Where is this missile headed? For whatever target this new generation selects.

Tuck that away. No sense in arguing the old arguments. This fish has left the tube.

Meanwhile, here’s an example of how the generational divide looks on the Iron Range.

Char Conger of Eveleth wrote a letter to the editor in the May 5, 2017 Hibbing Daily TribuneShe took issue with the way a representative of the Hibbing Chamber of Commerce was treated by older members of the city council at a recent meeting.

One small but significant barrier that I think dampens Millennials’ participation, however, is that the gatekeepers to many community institutions are often from an older generation and do not appear to take the younger generations seriously.

Each generation has its own way of doing things and that’s natural. There’s always going to be a bit of friction and misunderstanding as people age into and out of social control. But the situation with the Street Dance, as reported in the article, reveals a troubling dynamic: how easily new ideas about how to modernize established traditions can be dismissed out of hand, and with condescension to boot.

Conger said that this creates a frustrating dynamic for young professionals.

My generation has much to learn from those that have come before. We don’t want to horn in and start changing things willy-nilly, and we don’t want to demand respect without also earning it.

But unless the older generation makes a little room at the table, Millennials (and those generations following us) are going to take our talents, energy, ideas (and money) to places more welcoming of them.

That poses extra danger for rural America, the Iron Range in particular. The “missile” from my earlier example won’t blow this place up. Young people will just leave or check out. We must give people a reason not only to stay, but to get involved and contribute new ideas. That means the rest of us need to listen as much as we talk. Good advice for all generations.


  1. Ranger47 says

    If this means more:
    Safe spaces
    LGBTQIAPK bathrooms in schools and Targets
    Black Lives Matters banners
    Bailouts for liberal arts college student loans
    Changing the name of Lawrence Lake to Bde Maka Ska
    Free health care for all
    Getting rid of my wood burning stove to save the world…
    I’m not interested

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