The Prodigal Parents and a Millennial Culture for Something New

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

Essential to philosopher Charles Taylor's affirmation of ordinary life is John Rawls’s priority of the right: society’s desire for justice and benevolence does not require a prior good or religious, ideological source to shape and guide; people believe in justice and benevolence without being able to explain why. Rawls sidelines the good with a thin description of justice based upon agreement in the early 1970s.

Thirty years later Taylor says no, our belief in justice and benevolence has a source in agape love, and if words like miracles and blessing are used and felt in our immanent (secular) frame, there will come a time when moderns ask for a thick description to explain why we care for our neighbors or for the poor in South Central LA.  (Nussbaum argues in a similar way with her recent book Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice). 

The older American generation earned money and had children and many of those children see the unhappiness of their parents; these children will control the American upper-middle-class having spent a lifetime being told that the path to true success and happiness is sought in a law firm, doctor's office, and on Wall Street. There is a difference between being born without money and being born with it, and this new generation of twenty somethings with trust funds and thus bright futures are floundering for a sense of identity and purpose. They have been raised in the so-called Super Zips (Manhattan, White Plains, Hamptons, Alexandria, Beverly Hills, Newport Beach), to older lawyer, doctor, business executive parents by foreign nannies, attended private schools and boarding schools where they developed a culture set off from the lower middle class and the world. Entitlement is an unfair word because if you talk to these twenty somethings, there is a profound sense of loss. The family has eroded and this is reflected in the less than self-confident American teenager.

So then, what is it that makes life worth living? These upper-middle-class American twenty somethings will answer in curious ways, and I say curious because their now sixty something parents have not told them to think this way, they have taught them through their actions and lack of attention. Good grades do not make life worth living, a fancy job with a significant paycheck does not make sense outside the perks of a nice reputation: to the children raised by nannies, pushed into wealthy, bullying private and boarding schools, noticed only after a 4.0 was earned and punished with secluded library hours, taken out of community sports or artistic ventures and put into one-on-one tutoring: not grades, not money, but connection is what makes life worth living, and once discovered after not being known it has a sweet, potent and redemptive power.

During her first semester at university, a friend of mine told her sixty something conservative, lawyer parents two things: first that she was getting a tattoo and second that she believes the purpose of life is to serve other people. She said her father who comes from a large Catholic immigrant family understood, but her mother, who can quote Ayn Rand extensively and has an I Am John Gault sticker on her car, did not get it. I believe this to be a good picture of emerging adult culture in America, complete with rugged bravery, confusion, and hope for something new.

Culture runs its race and people screw up: affairs are had, hedge fund managers steal, children are raised with money and not love—but God's truth, His steadfast agape remains.  The time is now. Generation after generation we tell the story of the prodigal son. Our parents ran away: let's return.

-Courtney Kane is participating in the Master of Philosophy (Christian Studies) at the Free University of Amsterdam, working towards a PhD. She is pursuing a kind of 'compassionate liberalism' that can speak to the class divide in the United States and United Kingdom.  She writes for the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Gordon College with a degree in Political Science.