Commentary: How to Build Strong Relationships Across Generations

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Commentary: How to Build Strong Relationships Across Generations

Looking out for what unites us

By Chan Swee Fen | 26 February 2021

When you ask the older generation to describe the millennials, you can expect to hear answers such as:

  • “entitled”
  • “materialistic”
  • “strawberry generation”
  • “addicted to social media”
  • “wants instant gratification”

And what about the millennial’s description of their parents or the older generation? You would probably hear answers such as:

  • “not keeping up with the times”
  • “technologically inept”
  • “old-fashioned”
  • “hard to communicate with”

Generation gap: a social phenomenon often defined as a difference in points of view, personal choices, and opinions of different generations that causes conflict between family members.

What are the reasons that bring about intergenerational conflicts?

Let us approach this from the lens of the Baby boomers (1949-1964), Generation X (1965-2000) and the Millennial (post-2000) generations.

  • Rise of technology and social media

    Technology defines the millennials’ growing up years. They can operate the mouse faster than the pen. Whether it is text messaging friends through their smartphone, communicating on social media platforms, online shopping or finding a date via dating apps, millennials are highly tech-savvy and incorporate technology in their day-to-day activities.

    They are also very proficient at multi-tasking online. For example, they can watch an online video or post on Instagram while simultaneously writing a work report with sometimes incredible ease.

    Unfortunately, Millennials’ tech-savviness and online multi-tasking abilities can lead to a disconnect between them and their parents as the latter may feel their children are “lost” in the world of technology. They fret about not being able to engage in a face-to-face conversation without being interrupted by their children’s electronic devices.

    Many parents also frown at the Millennials’ frequent posting of personal anecdotes, photos, and personal videos on social media sites attributing it to mere boasting to get attention and applause. Some researchers, however, believe the objective of these Millennials is to get validation and recognition from their peers – a basic human need that cuts across generations.

    It is noteworthy that the older generations derive their self-esteem needs from working hard and excelling at the workplace. (Downs, 2019)

    Regardless of the era one is born in, the need for security, success and significance are universal and not time-bound. However, the ways of expressing these needs may differ from generation to generation.

  • Differences in communication styles

    Research by Downs argued that the mismatch in communication methods and styles is a reason for the disconnect between the generations.

    The Baby boomers prefer face-to-face communication, using the telephone as well as letters. Millennials prefer using different technologies such as texting messaging and the internet to communicate, which to Baby boomers are not as effective as communicating in person or over the phone.

    Millennials feel that Baby boomers over-explain and over-use face-to-face meetings. Generation X members are able to relate with Baby boomers but they have learnt to use technology and social media so as to better relate to their children.

    Despite the differences in communication styles among the generations, one thing rings true: all generations crave human contact and connection.

  • A clash of ideologies

    With the advent of almost limitless internet and social media exposure, millennials are more informed about the world they live in. For better or for worse, they are also widely exposed to a plethora of social issues such as climate change, racism and LGBT.

    They have a broader outlook on social issues and life, and thus may not simply embrace or adopt the societal norms that the older generations embrace.

    Conflicts arise when the millennials feel that their parents or elders are judgemental and trying to impose their values and perspectives instead of being willing to accept their views when it comes to contentious issues. As such, millennials may avoid sharing their viewpoints to maintain harmony or for self-protection.
  • Difference in personal values

    It is not uncommon to hear millennials lamenting that their parents do not understand their career choices or life path. They want to find their own life purpose and carve out their own path given their talents, competencies, and desires.

    A young adult may choose to forego a well-paying job in the corporate world to be a content creator making YouTube videos, much to the chagrin of his/her parents.

    Such generational differences are very real and has the potential to negatively impact family life if we do not pay attention and do something about it.

Here are some ways the generations can create S.P.A.C.E to build bridges.:

  1. S – Support millennials’ quest for individuation
    Wise parents understand their role is to guide their young adult children to find their own path. They provide support, encouragement, and perspective, not control or criticism, in their millennials’ quest for meaning and significance.

  2. P – Prioritise family relationships above differences
    Accept that there will be differences between family members of different generations, and that it is a normal phenomenon. Instead of agonising over the differences, shift the focus to the strength of the relationship.

  3. A – Avoid negative labels
    Narratives shape how we view others and influence our attitudes towards them. Dogmatic labels such as “old-fashioned” or “strawberry generation” serve only to alienate people instead of building relationship bridges. Find commonality wherever you can.

  4. C – Create a safe environment for everyone to express their views
    Family members will only risk vulnerability when they know they will not be harshly criticised for expressing their views on controversial topics. One way to foster trust is to practice istening to understand instead of listening to evaluate.

  5. E – Embrace the differences
    Different generations live in different time periods marked by their own unique experiences, challenges, and perspectives. Instead of expecting your significant others to conform to your generation’s modus operandi of doing life, be willing see things from their perspective.

The generation gap has existed for a long time and it can only widen with the rapid pace of change and evolving new technologies. By paying attention to our own biases and focusing on building relationship bridges, we can foster strong and enduring familial relationships.

Reference:
Downs, Hannah (2019) “Bridging the Gap: How the Generations Communicate,” Concordia Journal of Communication Research: Vol 6, Article 6.

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.

 

Swee Fen is an ordinary woman who desires to inspire others to make an extra-ordinary impact through her family life and life skills workshops, counselling training sessions and writing.

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