The last time I heard the term, “Generation Gap” was in reference to the 1960s. The explosion of personal expression through music, fashion, style, language and a shift in values were so far removed from the experience of the “silent generation” that raised the “baby boomers” that it created a chasm in understanding between the two generations. Our parents were “square”. We were “cool”. They stayed silent. We spoke out.
Is the generation gap back, or is there something more sinister going on? Let’s explore. There’s a story behind every generation’s experience of life, from trauma to joy, disappointment to unimagined leaps forward, failures and successes. Yet, this seems to be lost in the echo chambers of social media.
According to my Twitter feed, those of us born between 1946 -64 are getting pelted with rocks for raping the planet and triggering the climate crisis, pillaging the job market, saddling our children’s generation with debt and making it impossible for them to buy a home. They are angry with us because, allegedly, we never had it so good and they aren’t going to do as well.
We had free university education, access to apprenticeships, a steady climb up the career ladder all the while garnering prosperity and personal freedoms. I experienced little of the daily grind my mother endured to keep the house running and the family fed and clothed. With labour-saving gadgets and packet foods, I had time to pursue a career and raise children.
If today’s media are to be believed we are in the middle of an incendiary generation war because we are out of touch with the digital generations and are trying to impose a structure and set of values on them that are no longer viable. We criticise them for being lazy, self- indulgent and narcissistic. Messages such as hard work brings rewards (we need to rethink that myth), stay loyal to one company and they will be loyal to you, (not with zero-hour contracts), marry and settle down (with what money?), are no longer relevant in this fast-moving world.
Since the financial crash of 2008 it’s been much harder to start out on the road to adulthood than it was in our time although that being said, there were challenging events during the 70s – The Winter of Discontent, recession, oil crisis, high unemployment, inflation, 15% interest rates and the threat of nuclear war was never far away. And, the Beatles disbanded!
Historical facts get lost and distorted in the retelling, and with the current wave of fake news disseminated by social media it’s become impossible to have rational conversations without getting het up. It’s not surprising that the Millennials are angry with us. They feel misunderstood by a generation that is out of touch, but hasn’t that always been the case?
To improve intergenerational understanding we need to communicate, clearly, honestly and frequently and refrain from using labels as put-downs – snowflake, boomer, and zoomer. This means sitting down calmly without an agenda and asking the right questions, actively listening and not pumping out advice beginning with “Well in my day…”
Like every generation before us, we wanted our own children to do better than us and that’s natural but we made the mistake of overpromising over protecting. Helicopter parenting has entered the lexicon as something negative and destructive to the self-esteem and mental health of our children. They’ve been cajoled, threatened and even bribed to work hard and do better than their peers. Achieve, achieve, achieve. I never heard these words from my parents. They didn’t know the first thing about universities.
But, there’s been a huge price to pay for this constant pressure. In the USA, three quarters of millennials have had to leave a job because of mental illness. On both sides of the pond, there had been a dramatic rise in depression, anxiety and suicide as well as a rise in alcoholism and suicide.
When I started my professional life, I had a secretary to look after my administration. Nowadays, employees are expected to do their own, thus adding to their workload. So many are suffering from burnout from long hours and lengthy commutes. Minimum wage, rents on a tiny flat or house share, poor diets, lack of sleep, rise of mobile phones, social media, loneliness, rapid changes, insecurity, and a sense of hopelessness is destroying the lives of the generation in whom we’d placed so much faith. Because they struggle under these unrealistic pressures, they are condemned for being weak. We need to cut them some slack.
On a personal note, I made sure my daughters knew that it was going to be tough out in the work place and skilled them up to be resilient and accept failure. It was the best gift I could have given them.
Looking back, people I knew worked for companies who looked after them, thus engendering loyalty and commitment on both sides. Companies like Cadbury, which was one of my key clients for many years, provided training, continuing education, social activities and good housing. Employees felt they belonged and were happy.
How many millennials can say this? Even when they enter graduate trainee schemes with blue chip companies, they are driven to exhaustion either because of the hours they need to work or because of fear of losing their job because of poor performance. They are in effect slaves to the share-holders. I know of several smart, generous, good young men and women – doctors, solicitors, teachers who took their own lives because they couldn’t see a way out.
So, what can we, the wise elders do to help? I have four simple suggestions.
- Mentor a young person. Help them to cut a path to where they would like to be while managing expectations. Tell stories about your own difficulties and how you reached your goals. Collude in a blog, book, or writing competition.
- Treat them as assets and not a nuisance. Think about what they can teach you.
- Include them. Value their ideas. Mix with them socially rather than sticking with your own tribe. Reassure them that things do pass and new opportunities will arise providing they look out for their health.
- Take their worries seriously. Depression and anxiety are real issues. It’s not helpful to say people had it worse during the war. They are at war. Not with us but with themselves.
Wishing you all a peaceful 2020.