Lessons from a Generational Melting Pot

Connecting generations can help resolve conflicts and create win-win situations.

Statistically speaking, generations are often classified by researchers based on their birth years. But more than just a demographic cohort, each generation has a distinct “social” or “cultural” identity that is influenced by large-scale trends and events during its members’ formative years.

Practically speaking, it’s helpful to our everyday interactions – at home, in the workplace, in education, houses of worship, and communities – to have a basic understanding of these generational identities and how they influence people’s attitudes and expectations.

As with any other grouping of people in American society, a generation’s worldview is influenced by a variety of factors – things like the economy, media messages, prevailing family structure, and major news events of their time.

Groups of people who grow up in different eras often have different attitudes about life and how the world should work, similar to those that develop among people of different economic, geographic, or cultural background.

The American Melting Pot

Imagine putting a group of strangers who’ve grown up in different parts of the country together in the same room: a Wyoming cowboy and a New England academic, a West Coast socialite and an Appalachian farmer, a first-generation Texan and a Florida retiree. Put a family from the Mississippi Delta in a room with one from suburban Ohio, and see how long it takes for a misunderstanding to occur.

In some cases, there may be a language barrier. But other differences arise from things as simple as the landscape: how can a Montana rancher explain wide open spaces to a man who’s never left the concrete jungle of New York City? How can a description of the wooded paths that wind through the mountains of West Virginia make sense to someone raised in the hot New Mexico desert?

If you’re in that room, it will help to understand the backgrounds of the people you’re meeting with: their language, their landscape, their social and cultural influences, and how those things shape the way they see the world. These factors may explain why one person is worried about government interference while another calls for stronger policing – or why one is focused on the need for basic education and another on the pressure to meet fitness and fashion expectations.

In our fast-changing American society, generational differences – the social and cultural differences that exist among people raised during different times in history – are every bit as distinct as those among people raised in different places around the country, if not more so.

The Generational Melting Pot

Now imagine a group of strangers who’ve grown up in different times: a World War II veteran and a smartphone-addicted tech worker, a free-love hippie and a 1950s housewife, a middle-class factory worker and an unemployed boomerang kid. Put a family from the penny-pinching Great Depression in a room with one from the consumption-driven 1990s, and see how the conversation goes.

Pretend for a moment that it’s possible to put all of them together in a room at the same age, say 27. How can the wartime vet explain the value of his childhood outdoor play to the tech-savvy software designer, who grew up playing video games with his friends online? How can the father of two who picked from plentiful factory jobs and bought a house at 25 make sense of why his single, debt-plagued counterpart would move back in with his parents at 26?

If you’re in this room, it will help to understand the generations of the people you’re meeting with. This factor may help to explain why one person is worried about foreign policy while another is focused on neighborhood issues – or why one is focused on the need to keep taxes low and another on the need to alleviate the burden of student loans. Even at the same age, they have different priorities that reflect what’s going on in their time period.

In just a few short decades, Americans have gone from horse-drawn carriages to men on the moon, from clunky telegraph wires that sent basic messages in dots and dashes to tiny personal computers that can send the history of human knowledge across the globe with the touch of a button.

As a result, social and cultural experiences vary from one American generation to the next in a way not experienced in most of human history.

Trends, Not Stereotypes

None of this is to say that members of a generation are all the same. Each person is uniquely made, and a wide variety of factors influence the people we turn out to be; there’s no theory, tool, or test that can completely define who we are.

When researchers try to over-simplify people down to stereotypes, it’s referred to as “ethnographic dazzle” – a fancy word for being so enamored with surface differences that we miss important similarities.

Understanding different generations is not about creating labels or stereotypes, but rather to shed light on generation as an important social and cultural influence that shapes individuals. Not everyone necessarily fits into the generation defined by their birth year, but everyone does identify, to some extent, with the defining experiences of a generation.

Whether the difference is location (place), generation (time), or any other behavior influencer, understanding how and why people approach situations differently can be a great help in resolving conflicts, and creating win-win situations.

The lesson?

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