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Looking at the Generation Gap

Identifying Generational Differences and Their Causes

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Boy playing guitar with grandfather
JGI/Tom Grill/Blend Images/Getty Images
differences between generations

Similarities in appearance can mask radical differences between the generations.

Photo © Digital Vision / Getty Images
Teen grandchildren love texting, so grandparents had better learn to text, too.

When grandchildren enter the teen years, grandparents are more likely to disagree with their music, their clothing and their use of technology.

Photo © Brad Wynnk / Dreamstime

Many grandparents grew up in an era of angry confrontations between the generations. As they ease into the role of family patriarchs and matriarchs, they may wonder: What happened to the generation gap? Is it gone or just on hiatus? Or it is still present but mostly underground?

Definition of the Generation Gap

A generation gap is commonly perceived to refer to differences between generations that cause conflict and complicate communication, creating a "gap." Word maven William Safire provides this more positive definition: "Generation gap can be a frustrating lack of communication between young and old, or a useful stretch of time that separates cultures within a society, allowing them to develop their own character." From their position in the family, and with more life experience than younger family members, grandparents are uniquely poised to see that differences between generations can be positive for all those concerned.

History of the Generation Gap

Although there have always been differences between the generations, the drastic differences that the term implies were not much in evidence until the twentieth century. Before that time, society was not very mobile. Young people typically lived near their extended families, worshiped in their childhood churches and often worked on the family farm or in a family business. With the advent of television and movies, young people were exposed to cultural influences alien to their own families and cultures. Performers like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and James Dean won adulation from the younger generation but were often met with derogation from the older generation. Then came the the 1960s, and civil rights and the Vietnam War exposed a more serious chasm between young and old

The Generation Gap Today

The generation gap that was so in evidence during the 60s has resurfaced, but it is not the disruptive force that it was during the Vietnam era, a 2009 study suggests. The Pew Research Center study found that 79% of Americans see major differences between younger and older adults in the way they look at the world. In 1969, a Gallup Poll found that a smaller percentage, 74%, perceived major differences. Today, however, although more Americans see generational differences, most do not see them as divisive. That is partly because of the areas of difference. The top areas of disagreement between young and old, according to the Pew Research Study, are use of technology and taste in music. (Grandparents are likely to have observed these differences in their tween and teen grandchildren.) Slightly behind these areas of difference are listed the following:

  • Work ethic
  • Moral values
  • Respect for others
  • Political views
  • Attitudes toward different races and groups
  • Religious beliefs.

 

Differences But Little Division

If large differences between the generations exist, why don't they spawn conflict? The answer is twofold. First, the two largest areas of difference--technology and music--are less emotionally charged than political issues. The older generation is likely to be proud of the younger generation's prowess in technology rather than to view it as a problem. As for the musical differences, each generation wants its own style of music, and the older generation generally can relate to that desire. Second, in the other areas of difference, the younger generation tends to regard the older generation as superior to their own generation--clearly a difference from the 1960s with its rallying cry of "Don't trust anyone over thirty." According to the Pew study, all generations regard older Americans as superior in moral values, work ethic and respect for others.

In one area those surveyed did regard the younger generation as superior--in tolerance for different races and groups. A different survey by the Pew Research Center identifies "increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians" as a particular area of difference, with almost half of those up to age 49 seeing it as a good thing, but only 37% of those aged 50 to 64 agreeing and only 21% of those 65+.

Learn how to bridge the generation gap.

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