Though the term postmodernism was first used in the 1870s, it was not widely used until the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. People who hold to postmodernism do not like to be classified, and therefore it is unlikely they will use the term to refer to themselves. But since there are now so many postmodernists in our culture, we should all have a working understanding of their worldview.
Postmodernism is the idea that individuals have both the intelligence and the right to decide for themselves what truth is. In the past, truth was a clearly defined fact that was generally accepted by each generation. Postmodern individuals see the definition of truth as less clear. As postmodern people search for truth, they base their conclusions on their own research, individual experiences, and personal relationships instead of on the truth accepted by their parents, government, or church. This does not mean postmodernists do not believe in truth; it just means they define truth for themselves.
Postmodern people are quite comfortable with the concept that different people will come to different conclusions about the same subject and all of them have discovered the truth, even if such truths contradict each other. For most postmodern people, the concept of absolute truth does not exist. It has been replaced with a more personalized sense of truth that may vary from person to person.
It can be difficult to describe how postmodern people think because they do not like to be categorized. However, careful observation of their behaviors, combined with listening to what young people say and write, offer a glimpse of postmodernists’ common characteristics. Dr. Earl Creps is the director of the doctor of ministry program at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. He writes extensively on postmodernism. He has discovered:
The average person influenced by postmodernism may never have heard a lecture or read a book about it. Nonetheless, the traits that embody the philosophy are all around us: the centrality of community, the primacy of experience, the subjectivity of truth, the complexity of human perception, the fragility of progress, the unreality of absolutes, the enormity of the spiritual [and] the plurality of worldviews.
Other writers have compiled similar lists of postmodern traits that frequently appear in the next generation. If business, government and religious leaders wish to effectively engage postmodern people, they will have to deal with these common traits.
Postmodern people can be any age, but typically, the younger people are, the more likely they are to have a postmodern worldview. Dr. Jan W. van Deth, a political science professor at the University of Mannheim, and Elinor Scarbrough, a senior lecturer in government at the University of Essex and co-director of the Essex Summer School in Data Analysis and Collection, have studied postmodernism extensively. They have presented a number of papers and edited a book on the subject. Based on their studies, they conclude that “postmodern orientations are most common among young people and the well-educated.”
There is no set age at which individuals suddenly decide to become postmodern. Instead, postmodern tendencies are more like a graph in which the younger a person is, the more postmodern his or her worldview is likely to be. This connection between age and postmodernism comes from a past when people had access to a limited amount of information, so it was harder for them to question truth. Because of this, older generations often believed what they were told because they did not have access to information that would lead them to think otherwise. With the advent of technology, younger generations have become used to collecting information from a wide variety of sources, as have more-educated people. Even though much of the information collected may be inaccurate, it still makes younger generations question the validity of what others have told them. Instead, they want to discover truth for themselves. This desire to discover one’s own truth is the essence of postmodernism.
If business, government and religious leaders want to reach the next generation, they are going to have to discover ways to help young people discover truth for themselves. Young people are not going to just accept a government official, business leader, or priest’s word on any particular issue. Young people want to delve deep into their own study of whatever subject is being discussed. Though this may frighten some leaders, many leaders enjoy the discussions that arise from such deep study. For those leaders able to embrace questions, the next generation will be a exciting addition at the cultural table.