Talking ’bout my generation

Decelerating is by definition, slowing down. That’s a prerequisite on Wasan Island; a beautiful cabin retreat in the heart of Muskoka, Ontario owned by the Breuninger Foundation, a German non-profit organization.

Great thinkers, from Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner, Daniel Kahneman, to Ashoka Fellow and author, Al Etmanski, have written about the benefits of slow thinking.

As Al writes, “time to learn from [our] mistakes. It helps you recognize the meaning in seemingly random events and to connect the dots between disparate experiences, insights, relationships and activities.”

With a conceptual ‘hunch’ from Allyson Hewitt, a simple frame provided by Jason Pearman and Vinod Rajasekaran, and the facilitation prowess of Chris Moss, a small group convened on Wasan Island in late June to decelerate and do some slow thinking on inter-generational dialogue and relationships. We called it the Intergenerational Decelerator.

We were a disparate bunch, intentionally a range of ages and divergent experiences, all interested in what would bubble up over the few days we were together. I arrived thinking about a project I’ve been working on with a very cool group of young changemakers; while it’s still very much in its infancy, I wondered how the Decelerator would help me think through how it’s being designed.


In our very first introductory circle together, some big thorny topics were raised which, if slightly reframed, seemed to me to be critical questions, not just for our retreat, but for life in general. Here are the unedited notes I recorded after our session:

Even in our own circles, we struggle with compassion in a fight to prove and show what we know.

Is this an eternal struggle for meaning, a sense of identity, of proving that we exist, that we are here – dammit! I have something to contribute!

This is a central yearning.

This is an innate desire, perhaps?

We are driven by a need to feel as though our life has purpose and that life is worth living.

How can we – no matter what stage of life we are in – no matter how old we are – feel as though we are contributing to something greater than our own survival?

When we’re older we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

When we’re younger we feel people won’t regard our contribution as valuable.

What is a valuable contribution?

From this Day 1 – Session 1 reflection, lots of ideas were generated – all circling around this final question: what is a valuable contribution?

This question was filtered through various aspects of life, work and how society could reimagine contribution outside of the confines of traditional workplaces and financial compensation for efforts made. In conversations over the nature of work, some interesting proposals were made highlighting specific aspects and challenges that must addressed.

For example, Leo Plue, who runs the Abilities Centre in Whitby ON, reminded us that there are hundreds of thousands of people with post-graduate degrees who languish in day programming or isolation, because they also happen to have a disability. They are unable to make a valuable contribution. How can we change the structure and nature of work to support their inclusion and contribution?

Another example…

How can we develop a new lexicon that better articulates the contributions and capacities available to us across generations?
Move from:

Age arrow Life stage
Work arrow Contribution
Job arrow Engagement

Free ourselves from the confines of words like:
  • Retirement
  • Boomer
  • Millennial
  • Youth
Redefine or refine:
  • Freedom
  • Meaning
  • Inclusion
Be conscious of our default questions when we meet new people:

What do you do? arrow What do you like doing? What are you interested in? What are you engaged in?

Meaningful work

We developed ideas around new mentorship programs and processes of exchange between people at different life stages. How do we design environments that are generative? What is the role and value of voluntary contributions?

Our conversation was not happening in isolation and there are many ways to look at the big question of: what is a valuable contribution? In “The World Without Work,” in the current issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson writes: 

“Most people do need to achieve things through, yes, work to feel a lasting sense of purpose. To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages. In other words, it would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.”


Photo by Raquel Fletcher from Focus on Saskatchewan

The article is not much of a stretch – imagining a world that many residents in post-manufacturing small towns and young university graduates are already familiar with.

What we haven’t imagined collectively is how to design the second part for millions of people: environments where meaningful contributions can be made, for compensation (monetary or otherwise) that facilitate one’s own good physical and mental health, and by extension, whole communities.

With only 2.5 days, it was unrealistic to reach grand conclusions, but the group reflected on the confines of our current language, our cultural barriers to change and our desire to be more conscious of the assumptions we carry and words we use in our every day.

If you took some time to think about how you introduce yourself to people and what you want to know about them, what language do you use and what assumptions do you bring to the meeting?

I think we all felt these things were obvious, but some deliberate decelerated time together revealed how difficult it can be to put into practice.