What is the generational gap? This gap emphasizes the differences between old and young. As a result, the ‘gap’ produces conflict and hampers communication. That is the big idea.
Generational differences feature often in the media. For the past 20 years, these differences also get closer attention in scientific research.
Moreover, discussing the generational gap is highly relevant because the current pandemic is suspected to widen the gap.
However, what is the generational gap? The answer, emerging in this article, is conclusive: the gap is an idea fixe and only causes prejudices.
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Table of contents
A generation consists of people of somewhat the same age, and with similar ideas and values. Participants of a generation are supposed to share the same identity. When the new and the old ideas are compared, the generational gap emerges. Without the generational gap, it is assumed that we could not understand social change.
The differences between generations are assumed to be important for societal progress. Each generation advances new ideas and innovations, replacing old ones. As a result, new generations produce social flexibility and provide new perspectives.
Scientists argue these changes are possible without changing cultural traditions and people’s identity. But what are the social changes, when there are no cultural and identity changes? Besides, what is the generational gap without any clues?
The cyclical pattern of generations
There is a theory which states that approximately every 20 years a new generation rises. Each generation goes through the same cyclical pattern. This pattern repeats itself roughly every 80 years.
The idea is that each generation goes through four personality types: idealist, reactive, civic, and adaptive. Each type of generational personality lasts 20 years. Every new personality in the cycle of generations is a reaction to the prior personality. Only significant historical events can frustrate this cycle.
The 80-year cycle proceeds as follows. The first personality, the idealists, is a narcissistic generation. This first generation’s personality raises the second personality type: indiscreet, alienated, and reactive kids. These kids, when they grow up, raise society-minded civics, the third generation. This third generation produces the fourth, the adaptive generation, which has an ethos of personal sacrifice and closes the cycle.
The problem is that there is no evidence to prove this cyclical theory of generations. Nevertheless, the theory is widely accepted, with respect to the timing of the generations and the generational labels.
Members of the same generation share experiences through participation in defining events, at a given time in history. Given this definition, World War II has defined our parents. The economic downturn of 2008 and the current pandemic are assumed to define our children and grandchildren.
The most influential experiences of our defining historical events occur in young adulthood. These experiences are most often linked with the experiences of the other members of the family in which we mature. The sharing of these experiences affects how we pass through our life-course. The identity of our generation is shaped during the first 20 years of our life.
When we share our experiences with the members of our family, this includes our parents. They are supposed to belong to a different generation. Our education, cohabitation, perhaps our own children, our work, can have a serious impact on our lives. Moreover, when we grow older we’re confronted with new events, often from outside.
Current examples of outside events, with a tremendous impact, are climate change, the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems, and the pandemic of course. However, all these events have a comparable impact on all members of all so-called generations.
Hannie and I are labelled ‘baby boomers’. We’re both born between 1946 and 1964. After World War II the depleted population was quickly replenished with new kids. The birth control pill, which came publicly available in the 1960s, virtually ended the boom of babies.
We’re preceded by the ‘silent’ generation, our parents, and followed by ‘generation X’, our children. Next came the ‘millennials’, followed by the ‘generation Z’. The latter is supposed to be the current generation: our grandchildren.
The birth of these generational labels cannot be traced through history. Journalists, magazine editors, advertising executives, and the general public invented, confirmed, and spread these labels. No scientific evidence exists to substantiate any of these generational labels.
Moreover, all the existing labels originated in the United States. This somewhat contradicts the claim that shared events and experiences dictate a certain generation. Generations in other countries hardly share, or shared, the same defining events and experiences as the Americans.
We are, what we define we are
People always vary on a number of experiences and expectations. Young people mature and change differently. Citizens in different countries grow up in different ways and in different cultures. Where is the generational gap, when generations are that hard to pin down?
The whole concept of generations seems weak. Scientists construct the generations by applying the same properties to age groups. Many individuals feel that a specific generational label does not apply to them. Year of birth and shared historical events are less and less experienced as useful variables to distinguish people. If such a distinction is useful at all.
Take for example the adoption of hedonism as the leading individual mindset in the 1970s. Hedonism emphasizes that we’re all individuals. From the 1970s and onward, we were all supposed to have different and regularly changing needs and capacities. Overnight, these ideas were adopted by all generations. So much for individuality and differences between generations!
Moreover, we constantly interact with our social environment, and the natural and not so natural world we live in. These interactions transform us and determine who we are. As is so eloquently illustrated by the general adoption of hedonism. But also illustrated by the fact that major threats, such as climate change and the destruction of biodiversity, impact all of us. Moreover, these threats require all of us (all generations, if you prefer) to take serious action.
There is no generational gap
Why do we talk about a generational gap when there is none? Why is the idea of a generational gap this popular? Where is the generational gap? What are the cues that encourage us to categorize?
Perhaps we inherited categorizing from our ancestors. Take for instance the Italian Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909). He thought it was possible to recognize someone’s criminal character from physical anomalies, and collected all kinds of examples of such anomalies to prove his point.
Other less provocative examples are Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) and Dimitri Mendeleev (1834 – 1907). Linnaeus is called the father of modern taxonomy: “the scientific study of naming, defining and classifying groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics.” Mendeleev designed the periodic table of elements. Both scientific innovations were huge steps forward.
Unfortunately, with the science of the generational gap, it is as with the science of Lombroso. It is pseudoscience. Let’s stop this pseudoscience, and concentrate on what we all have in common, what motivates us and enjoy everybody’s peculiarities.
Have you ever experienced a generational gap? And if so, why? Please respond in the comment box below.