Perhaps you are experiencing the joys and frustrations of life in close quarters during these times of social isolation. My family is one among many who are living daily under one roof. We are a family of six (mom, dad, four daughters). At the time of the governor’s announcement closing schools and businesses, one daughter was away at college and another was still home on her spring break. A few days later we brought our daughter home from college, thus indefinitely reuniting our entire family.
As my collegiate daughters encountered peers with life experiences very different from their own, I enjoyed our conversations about their observations. Watching my daughters begin to live out their own convictions has been enlightening. They are now “emerging adults”—a fascinating and exciting time of life. I am reminded daily that the influences and life experiences that shape their beliefs, motivations, and actions are different than those that influenced me at that same stage of life. Therein lies the crux of how generations are defined.
Generational cohorts share not only a range of birth years but also an identity that has been forged by current events, technology, and reaction to older and younger cohorts. While helpful when speaking in generalities, generational characteristics certainly have their limits. Personal experience and even personalities are also exceptionally significant in identity formation. In the unique times in which we find ourselves—perhaps with multiple generations living under one roof with little opportunity for separation—you may find yourself bumping up against generational conflict. Shouting, door slamming, and venting on Facebook may provide a temporary emotional release, but I challenge us to consider an alternative posture—a posture of humility as a bridge to generational understanding.
For this article, I surveyed a massive sample of six individuals across three generations: my mom and dad (born in late 1945) who consider themselves early Baby Boomers with sympathies toward the Silent Generation, my sister and me (born in 1969 and 1974, respectively) who fall firmly in the Gen-X designation, and my twin daughters (born in 2000) who are part of Gen-Z.
I began my survey with the question, “What do you consider the defining historical event(s) of your generation?” Not surprisingly, both of my parents responded with the Vietnam conflict, the cultural revolution led by the hippie movement, and the civil rights movement. These are all arguably violent events. Television was the medium that streamed images into the collective households of this era, including high-profile assassinations ( John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X) and bloody political protests.
My sister and I struggled a bit more to identify a key event that shaped our generation. Instead, we were influenced more by the ethos of the Reagan era. There was an American optimism oddly tempered by fear from the threats of the Cold War. As a child I was acutely fearful of nuclear war and even wrote a letter to President Reagan expressing my thoughts. I think it could be argued, however, that Gen-X did not experience the level of violence in America as did the Baby Boomers.
Not having any Millennials in my sample, I will skip to Gen-Z. When I posed the question to my daughters, they both agreed in their responses. They cited the developments in technology, specifically the evolution of the iPhone, to be the factor with the most impact on their generation.
I find it fascinating that the most influential events, over these three generations, have moved from multiple conflicts, to relative peace with undercurrents of total annihilation, to technological advances. Considering how the experiences we live through shape our views of the world, it’s easy to see why conflicts between the generations can occur!
Healthy Conflict Leads to Growth
Conflict is inevitable. Conflict divides and separates. It leads to anger and hatred, which we certainly observe in our culture today. But conflict with a posture of humility can spur us to examine our convictions which may even lead to necessary and helpful change. Encountering copious amounts of conflict on social media has convicted me to change my kneejerk reaction from exasperation to empathy.
Humility is difficult. It doesn’t always feel as satisfying. But when I ask questions about why an individual feels so strongly about their beliefs, it builds a bridge to understanding. Conflict resolution cannot happen without humility. It goes against our sinful human nature that wants to put ourselves first. But “self-firstness” is not the way of Christ: “Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” ( John 15:13), or “Love your neighbor as yourself ” (Mark 12: 31).
If you are living in a home with generational conflict, embrace humility. Ask questions. Remember that the experiences that shaped you are not the same experiences that shaped another generation. You may be appalled at the amount of time your daughter spends on her device, viewing this habit as a total waste of time. You survived your teenage or young adult years without a cell phone, social media, Google, or YouTube. Why can’t she?
But, did you ask her to help you to understand what she is doing?
Perhaps she is feeling untethered since she was sent home from her collegiate support community. Perhaps she is fearful of not going back to her “home away from home” in the fall. Will she graduate on time? Will she miss out on the much-anticipated key internship? Through her device she can remain connected to her support network of friends and professors. Yes, even these are “real” relationships.
Gen-Z, do you roll your eyes at forced family dinners or game nights? Did you ask your Gen-X parents why they bother? Did they tell you that they are the “latch key” generation? They came home from school to empty houses because their parents were working hard to provide the American Dream for them. They had houses filled with beautiful and plentiful things but lacked relationships. Their biggest fear is that they will perpetuate those skewed values.
Taking time to ask questions, with a posture of humility and a goal of empathy, will put our feet on the path towards generational reconciliation and understanding.
Originally published for the Spring 2020 issue of Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation.