It might surprise you to learn that the term “generation gap” was only defined as recently as 1992. It’s a concept as old as time—the idea that, as VeryWell puts it, the “differences between generations... cause difference in opinions and communication.” For as long as there have been parents, there have also been children whose habits and perspective feel foreign. So, then, why have we only recently decided to label it as a gap?
The answer is that there’s more distance between generations than ever before. Because we’re living longer than ever, the senior population is larger than ever and is projected to grow a whopping 84% between 2010 and 2030.
At the same time, boomers are remaining in the workforce—and working alongside the massive contingent of millennial professionals—until well into their 60s and 70s. As Gen Z comes of age, we’ll see and unprecedented three generations working alongside one another—and sometimes struggling to communicate.
While it takes creativity and cooperation to form relationships across generational lines, the benefits are well worth the effort. And with these larger dynamics at play impacting our society for decades to come, it’s in all our best interests to open ourselves to the possibility of intergenerational relationships.
Finding Meaning in Intergenerational Communication
Is it possible to bridge the generation gap? Naomi Grossman of LifeJourneys Media thinks so.
Naomi's company launched The LifeStory Challenge, a digital platform to empower seniors to capture, preserve and share their life stories, with a mission to connect seniors with their loved ones. In her years of work conducting life storytelling workshops with seniors, she’d heard plenty of interest from workshop participants in continuing their projects, if only they knew how. She found that storytelling was powerful for older adults and their children or grandchildren: it not only renewed seniors’ sense of importance, but it also connected the younger generations to their elders.
After piloting The LifeStory Challenge in Boston, Naomi was approached by a local high school with a use case she hadn’t considered: pairing students with assisted living residents to take the Challenge together. The results were astounding: seniors loved sharing their stories with students, and the students were just as enthralled—not only with the stories, but with the parallels to their own lives. She watched as the pairs reconnected week after week and even kept in touch after the end of the program.
“When you know someone’s life stories, you know them,” says Grossman. “When you know who they were, you know who they are.”
5 Tips to Bridge the Generation Gap
With accessible platforms like The LifeStory Challenge and technology available to people of all ages, we have unprecedented options for connecting with others outside of our age group. If you want to enrich your life by building intergenerational relationships, here are four things to keep in mind:
- Listen openly and with curiosity.
A recent Forbes article examined an example of intergenerational communication failure in a frequently intergenerational context: a job interview. While professionals in their 30s or younger have grown accustomed to a relatively impersonal process mostly conducted online, older jobseekers are reporting feeling an absence of feedback rather than expected one-on-one communication through the process. While a millennial might not think twice about leaving a conversation unacknowledged until they receive internal approval to proceed, a boomer could view the silence as unprofessional.
People bring different understandings to different contexts based on their life experience—which is heavily influenced by when they were born. To bridge the generation gap, assume people of other generations are just as smart and thoughtful as you: they may just express it differently because they themselves were raised differently. For example, lack of familiarity with a computer from an older person is no more a sign of incompetency than a younger person’s lack of familiarity with writing checks or mailing a letter. Keep your mind open to how others’ values and needs may differ from yours—and don’t be afraid to raise your voice when an environment appears to ignore or dismiss it.
- Don’t be surprised to learn you’re more alike than you are different.
Sharing stories and developing bonds intergenerationally is something humans are hard-wired to do, as thousands of years of oral history demonstrate. In other words, people have been doing this forever.
According to Naomi, “Younger people are often not only unaware of what life was like before they lived, but also are surprised at how many of the issues and complications of the present are similar to the lived experience of those who came before. They’re aware of this intellectually, but the contextual awareness provided by a person in their lives enables real understanding.” It’s empowering to know you’re not alone and to forge an unexpected connection with another person.
- Do it for you! Telling your story benefits you as much as the listener.
In The LifeStory Challenge example, storytelling gives older adults new perspective on their own life, allowing them to see it for the journey it is. Dr. Robert Butler, pioneering activist and founder of the National Institute on Aging, put it this way over 55 years ago:
“I was struck some years back by the fact that older people tended to review their life. At that time, whenever people reminisced it was regarded by psychologists and psychiatrists as possible early signs of senility. But because we were studying vital, healthier older people, it struck me how important it was for people to come to grips with the kind of life they had led.”
- Consider bringing the cross-generational connection home (literally).
Now more than ever, people are looking for ways to earn or save money. Bringing in a roommate is a great way to do that—but you want it to be the right roommate. Sometimes that means a person from another generation, as in the case of housemates Lonna and Shay who benefited in expected and unexpected ways from homesharing.
Intergenerational homesharing is becoming increasingly common—in fact, Pew Research Center found that as of 2016, 1 in 5 American households are intergenerational and that, as of 2018, 14% of those. This is not surprising given potential benefits of homesharing, including preventing social isolation for the 21 million adults age 65+ who live alone and improving housing affordability for the 70 percent of Americans ages 20-34 who rent their homes.
Intergenerational communication isn't a language to be learned: it’s an opportunity to be taken. We hope these tips can help you when bridging the generation gap in the workplace, at church, at school, at home or elsewhere in life. After all, the richness of lived experience deserves to be shared.
Sound interesting? Silvernest can help!
If you’re interested in Naomi’s work on The LifeStory Challenge or would like to create your own book, visit her website for more details. And, of course, if you’re interested in homesharing, you’re in the right place. Visit Silvernest to browse listings in your area and get started today!