Bridging the generation gap

May 1, 2015 -- Living City

Bridging the generation gap
How relationships between people of different ages can be fruitful

By Nancy O’Donnell

“I  apologize for my negligence. It won’t happen again.”
“Totally my fault!”
“My bad!”
“But I tweeted you!”

These four phrases are possible responses to the same situation, but expressed in generationally different ways. It’s just a small example of the challenges involved in intergenerational communication, and therefore, their relationship with one another.

Even without attempting to identify possible causes, most people would agree that something is not working as it should. “Generation gap” is not a new expression. I would dare to say, in fact, that it seemed the gap was even greater in the tumultuous 1960’s, when the “new” generation rejected, in a clear and definitive way, the values of their parents and the previous generations. The “gap” today looks different, in many ways less radical. Perhaps precisely because it appears less drastic, it ends up being more difficult to understand and address. In fact, parents often feel that they have a fairly open and honest relationship with their children, yet find themselves perplexed by the decisions their children ultimately make, and wonder if the messages they wanted to convey were heard the way they intended. The increased influence of forces outside the family has, of course, increased over the past few decades, and makes the situation more complex.

For example, I became a bit disenchanted with Disney family movies when I gradually realized that parents were frequently portrayed as “clueless,” bordering on stupidity. Comedy always has a connection to reality, so there is no doubt that to younger generations parents often seem out-of-touch and old-fashioned. I’m not so sure it helps, if we want to improve relationships, to imply that this is the norm. The loss of respect for others is often seen as one symptom of a society in moral decline. How much “family” entertainment like this has contributed to this is impossible to measure. But it’s worth thinking about.

Rather than turning to the internet to find a list of “tips” on how to handle differences in the workplace, or even in the family (a search that could provide a number of choices) I decided to ask some young people what they thought was necessary for a good relationship with someone of an older generation.

They are acutely aware that they are not understood by the older generation and that they do not often understand them – but they don’t understand why. There is often a “good” relationship, but not the kind that they would want. They don’t feel that adults trust them and usually doubt that they are able to make good decisions or choices. They want to feel that adults will listen to them without judging, and respect their opinions even when they don’t agree. Another essential element is honesty, which is necessary for any fruitful dialogue. If adults are unwilling to admit they have made a mistake, or that they’re wrong at times, young people are less willing to admit theirs.

At an even deeper level, also this generation rejects the “ideal life” being offered to them by the adult society. This is similar to the situation we experienced in the 1960’s. The difference now is that young people believe they are being told that if they work very hard and make it to the top, so to speak, they will be happy. Children feel pressured from an early age to excel, to surpass their peers scholastically, as well as in sports, etc. Those who follow this track are often on anti-anxiety medications by the time they reach college. Others, observing the people saying this, see that they do not possess the happiness that they seek. They reject this idea, but don’t know what to put in its place. They want other choices and want help finding them, but don’t know where to turn. It feels to them that the adult world is running so fast in the direction it has chosen that young people have to either run behind them or get left on their own. Neither of these options is very attractive.

Adults also need to tell their side of the story. It’s interesting to note that they, in many ways, want the same things from the relationship as young people do: respect, a sense that the other is listening to them, honesty. They are also concerned that youth today might be too absolute in their judgment, with the risk of losing positive values that also present in the experience of past generations.
Conflicts therefore find their roots in beliefs and values that differ among family members as well as with those offered by society.

Speaking about this with a young friend, she explained that loving her grandparents and parents doesn’t mean that she automatically agrees with their opinions. She would be hesitant to go to them for advice, because she feels that they would not understand her. She shared that, despite this, she is able to have good discussions with her parents on different topics.

Even when they fail to agree on a position, they are usually able to respect their differences, maintaining a good relationship and even at times learning from one another. This is a desirable outcome and one that should be attainable. What might be needed on both sides to facilitate this process?

Researchers who study issues in relationships among people of different cultures and religions have recognized that misunderstandings often arise because each comes from a different frame of reference that is used to understand the words and actions of others. It isn’t required, or even possible, to adopt the views of the others, but it is necessary to try to understand where they are coming from and what impact what oneself does and says might have on them.

There is also often the tendency to try to change the other person, to modify in some way their belief system. It could be that our adult society knows the youth might have it wrong when it comes to committing to what is more important in life, but they’ve put so much effort into developing this identity that it’s not easy to re-examine their choices. Placing this up against the normal diffidence that young people feel toward those who are older could seem to be a recipe for an impasse.

Some of the differences exist because we derive some security from identifying with a social group that possesses characteristics similar to our own, for example the same generation. When that security is threatened it is almost automatic to throw up walls of protection that prevent others from entering.

It’s important to note that despite these difficulties, most of the time, there is genuine, profound love between parents and their children. The key is translating that love into something deeper: a reciprocal, growth-fostering relationship, where we have the courage to move beyond the walls we build to protect our beliefs. Much is being discussed about how to do this with people who are different from us in other ways. What makes it harder to do with people who are closer to us is often the expectation that it should be automatic, or at least uncomplicated. Instead, reciprocity always demands a readiness on both sides, younger and older generations, to set aside their beliefs and opinions, in order to truly enter into the world of the other person, and see things from their perspective. Building this kind of relationship takes time, the lack of which is often the biggest obstacle to overcome in families, especially.

It is possible, therefore, to achieve what everyone seems to want, but it takes an effort on both sides, combined with the conviction that this is an attainable goal and one that could bring enormous rewards, at a personal level, to families and society as a whole.         

Nancy O’Donnell, Psy.D.,
is a psychology professor
based in Loppiano, Italy.