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Do You Need to Mind the Generation Gap?

"Ok Boomer” may reflect a generation gap, but it's a generation trap.

Generational misunderstandings and culture clashes (generation gaps) are part of the human condition. It’s typical for each generation to create and embrace new music, dance, fashion, haircuts, technologies, lexicons, and gender expressions that distinguish them from prior generations.

To some extent, younger generations have always challenged and changed the existing culture and perceived older generations as old-fashioned, uncool, condescending, and out of touch. Meanwhile, older generations have always wailed about “today’s youth” and viewed youth cultures with puzzlement and an affront to their own familiar generational cultures. An amusing aspect of this recurrent type of generational conflict is that it’s always only a matter of time before the young become the old and cultural and technological changes put them on the other side of the generation gap.

Kane Lynch, used with permission.
Source: Kane Lynch, used with permission.

Today’s version of generational culture clash features the Millennials (born from the early 80s to 1996) and Generation Z (1997-present) versus the Boomers (born from the mid-1940s to 1964). Fueled by media stories and memes spread on social media, it features the telltale signs of ingroup-outgroup bias (what you might think of as “tribalism”).

These signs include stereotyping, that is, negative generalizations about a group and its members where specific traits are assigned to most members, regardless of variation among members. For example, the current generational kerfuffle is around a Gen Z/Millenial meme that portrays Boomers as politically incorrect and technologically incompetent, and promotes a norm of dismissing them with “Ok Boomer.” The flip side: the "Ok Boomer" meme appears to be a reaction to videos of Boomer rants about young people being terrible and articles about Gen Z/Millenial narcissism, entitlement, and how they’re responsible for the demise of industries, malls, etc.

On January 15, 2020 US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts was hearing a case on ageism when he asked, “Is 'Ok Boomer' ageist?” While I doubt that merely saying this to someone in the workplace would constitute legal proof of discrimination based on age, I do think there’s reason to be concerned about the age-based bias and tribalism it promotes.

Ingroup-outgroup bias includes the outgroup homogeneity effect. Basically, this means that we see outgroup members as more similar to each other than they are. Of course, there are things you can say that are generally true; for example, Millennials and Gen Zs tend to be more technologically and social media savvy than Boomers. But truthfully, none of these groups is as homogeneous as generational stereotypes suggest. Each of these groups is comprised of diverse individuals that vary in their politics, personalities, and work ethics. Each generational group is diverse as far as culture, race, economic class, gender, etc., which also means they're diverse as far as their past, present, and future social, economic, and political power.

Likewise, the fact that so many years are included in each of these generational categories makes it rather ridiculous to assume the experiences, lives, practices, and attitudes and opinions of a person are similar to most others in these generational categories. The early Boomers were young adults in the early 1960s when the late Boomers were born. Likewise for the Millennials, the oldest of which are almost 40 and the youngest of which are in their early 20s. In short, it’s foolhardy to generalize but so much about each group and to reduce the undesirable behavior of individuals to their age group.

Ingroup-outgroup biases are motivated by some interesting psychological forces, some of which appear to be at play here. For instance, according to social identity theory, when we put down an outgroup and its members, we feel good about our group and ourselves (this is called positive distinctiveness). Believing in our group’s superiority and other groups’ inferiority boosts self-esteem and solidarity within our own group.

Unfortunately, the negative stereotypes of the other group that fuel our self-esteem and solidarity frequently create unnecessary distance and conflict between our group and the other group (intergroup conflict). After all, it's human nature to dislike and avoid those that appear to dislike us and to reciprocate the hate. For example, dismissing someone with a condescending “Ok Boomer” doesn’t exactly inspire friendly relations or listening and may invite a generational counterattack (an “Ok Boomerang” if you will). Despite this, Boomers could benefit from reading between the lines of “Ok Boomer” for the very real frustrations and fears of Millenials/Gen Zs. After all, empathy is an antidote to poisonous conflict.

In short, we all should actively resist this age-based nonsense since it seems to promote ageism and harms intergenerational relationships. It also works against the intergenerational conversation and cooperation we need to address the big problems our society faces today, including the economic policies and conditions that make so many people, regardless of age, feel economically insecure. Each generation possesses skills and knowledge useful to the other. We would all do well to act in ways to narrow, rather than widen the gap.

Leadership professor Megan Gerhardt summed it up well when she said, “Let’s stop the generation shaming, the name-calling, the scapegoating. Let’s instead think about what different generations can both teach and learn from each other, and how those conversations can result in entirely new ways of solving problems.”

More from Shawn M. Burn Ph.D.
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