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Intergenerational Communication: Why and How

In a society as interconnected and communicative as we are today, we still tend to relegate ourselves into little bubbles where we only really talk with others who are like us. On social media, we like to only follow and like people who are similar to us. We also enjoy watching television shows featuring people we can relate to. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has demonstrated this tendency for us to congregate primarily with people who share our views and limit our interactions with those who are different. It is worthwhile to reflect on the type of people with whom we regularly interact and how much that can hinder our personal growth. When we remain inside our comfort zones, we can lose sight of what is truly important and what other perspectives exist. It is important to challenge yourself to interact meaningfully with people of a different age group than you. Intergenerational communication is a great way to expand horizons, learn more, and be engaged while doing so. Here are some tips to bridge the generational gap and communicate with someone older or younger than you.

The Benefits of Intergenerational Conversation

Each generation seems to have its own trends and shared ideas. It can be hard to understand them as an outsider. What might seem hard to grasp as an older person could be the common belief among a younger generation and vice versa. For example, on average, older generations have had an easier time paying for college and could find it confusing that younger generations want assistance to pay off debts they might have acquired. Or a member of a younger generation may wonder why religion is such an important factor in the beliefs and stances of many older generations. Intergenerational communication can help clear up these misunderstandings.

intergenerational communication

Understand the Perspectives of Others

Regular intergenerational communication can help bridge the age gap and allow us to better understand the perspectives of others. As a result, we can effectively humanize those who are different and create a more understanding relationship between people of various generations. A member of a younger generation, for instance, could explain why they might be more distrustful towards law enforcement officials as a result of growing up where publicized crimes committed by officers are the disturbing norm. So, while at first, the younger individual’s viewpoint may be confusing, by the end of the conversations, the older generation should be able to see what young folks today are experiencing. Maybe they will not entirely agree, but they can at least be more considerate towards their view.

Learn More About Yourself

If the person you are talking to is a relative or a long-standing family friend from another generation, it can be a chance to learn about how their past connects with yours. This is particularly true when it comes to a younger generation communicating with an older generation. For example, talking with parents or grandparents about their childhood and upbringing can shed light on why they might behave the way they do. That in turn can teach you more about yourself or enlighten you on how the circumstances around your life have shaped you. For example, someone who grew up during the 1960s can tell you how that decade shaped their lives. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and/or the assassination of John F. Kennedy have likely made some impact on the people of that era. As a result, you might begin to reflect on how the events of the decades of your own life are shaping you and how you might think or act differently if things didn’t pan out the way they have in the world.

Enjoy Sharing With Others

It’s also just plain fun to learn about another person from a different generation. Hearing their life stories can be entertaining and enlightening. They can bring you to a time and place that you aren’t as familiar with and cause you to really become invested in one another. Plus, giving others the opportunity to have heart-to-heart with you can really make their day. Everyone likes getting to share their stories with one another!

The questions below can be good prompts to begin your next conversation with someone of a different generation.

intergenerational communication

“What do you do for fun?”

Our free time is precious, and what we choose to do with it says a lot about us. Talking to one another about hobbies and other extracurricular pursuits can also help humanize each other. For example, learning that a younger coworker spends his/her free time volunteering or performing in a band can give you a more holistic view of that person beyond the workplace. Plus, since people love talking about the things they enjoy, the chances are that this topic of conversation can be very entertaining.

“What were your expectations growing up?”

As times go by, the expectations we hold for members of society change, particularly for young people. A few decades ago, the general hope was for people to be married and start a family by their twenties; but the same can’t be said for today’s young people. That is a generalization of course, as everyone experiences different norms when growing up. Understanding how these might differ from your own can shed light on the path you and other people have taken in life. Societal and familial pressures can be a powerful force and can shape us in many ways – both positively and negatively. Learning about those forces can deepen the connections we have with others and help us to familiarize ourselves with their outlook on life.

“What are some of your fears?”

The fears of sequential generations have always been evolving. For many generations, Americans were afraid of more large-scale issues, like foreign adversaries or being drafted into a war. Nowadays, fears may be more local, such as neighborhood crime or not being able to purchase a home. Much like expectations, fears can also be a strong influence in regards to how we act in our lives. For example, many older generations grew up being told that communism and socialism are malicious forces that will destroy America. That fear, which was instilled in them during their formative years, might explain why many older Americans are more faithful to capitalism and fearful of socialism. Learning about these kinds of fears can open your eyes to the sorts of concerns another generation might have and how those are still driving their beliefs and behaviors today.

“What do you value in your life?”

Not everyone has the same values. Young adults might value a successful career that aligns with their personal viewpoints. Conversely, an older person might value the safety and stability of their family. Talking to one another about how these values differ from generation to generation will help you understand why they might prioritize the things they do. Remember, we are prone to creating assumptions about people we’re unfamiliar with, including those from other generations, mainly because they are people with seemingly different values. And while those values might be hard to grasp as a stranger, a meaningful conversation can increase empathy and understanding of various perspectives.

“What was school like for you?”

Education is an institution that all Americans experience during their formative years. Thus, many people have strong opinions associated with schooling. And since it has been changing so much since the first schoolhouses were established centuries ago, many older generations may not be as aware of the issues plaguing classrooms today. For instance, someone who has been uninvolved with schools for a couple of decades may be surprised to learn that access to quality education is still so inequitable, causing major learning losses in our most vulnerable youth. Students of color from lower-income families have tended to perform poorly in schools, largely at no fault of their own. While the data speaks for itself, talking with another generation about their educational experiences could highlight the patterns of successes and failures of the American education system. Awareness is the first step to reform.

intergenerational communication

In Conclusion

We can often find ourselves caught up in our own little world, surrounded by people just like us. Being in an echo chamber like that for long enough can be detrimental. Talking to others from different generations can help broaden your horizons. If you’d like to try that and develop a worthwhile understanding of their perspectives, try asking about their experiences, fears, hobbies, or values. And if you would like to lend a helping hand to those of the next generation, donate to Educate. Radiate. Elevate. Your donation can help provide low-income students of color with a tutor who will help them overcome the hurdles and difficulties they experience with their education.

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"Hi, I'm Lindsey.
Every other month, I share short emails full of hopeful stories, updates on your impact, and relevant news. Thousands of people enjoy them."
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Lindsey Wander
Founder and President