How wide is the generation gap–and what can we do
to bridge it? How can older and younger people fight less and talk more?
We take a look at the stereotypes that accompany each age group and offer an alternative view.
WORDS: TOM BAILEY
MAY/JUNE 2023 ISSUE
They are known as the “Zoomers”. Generation Z or Digital Natives. They are under 25 and rarely three feet away from a screen. Glued to their phones, they trudge down the street, ignoring traffic and other human interaction. They wear outlandish outfits, listen to incomprehensible music and are generally an irritant. What about the “Boomers”? Born in just after the war, they have selfishly caused climate change and spiralling house prices with their profligate living. They stubbornly refuse to adapt to the modern, digital world. They are stuck in the past. The two generations can’t possibly have anything in common. Can they?
Of course, these are lazy stereotypes. We all know people of different generations who don’t fit into the characteristics most associated with them. The tech-savvy grandma who campaigns online for action over climate change; the young volunteer who abandons her devices to chat to older people who are isolated. But it’s very tempting to slip into thinking that these sweeping assumptions are true.
"It’s not just different way
skills young people can learn – older
people often have a
of looking at the world".
People of generations have always been suspicious of each other. One philosopher described young people as having “exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations.” He goes on: “They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning. They overdo everything - they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else.” The philosopher was Aristotle; he was writing around 2400 years ago. To what extent is this suspicion of younger generations just a symptom of getting older? As we age, do we forget what it’s like to be young?
It works both ways though. Bruce Gibney, an American writer and venture capitalist in his 40s, thinks society’s ills are rooted in the behaviour of the generation above him. “The Boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it,” he writes in his amiably titled book, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America. “They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens,” splutters Gibney. “They’ve spent virtually all our money and assets on themselves and in the process have left a financial disaster for their children.” Bruce doesn’t mince his words. Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric spills out of the covers of provocative books and into the mainstream cultural conversation. Hence the popularity of the phrase “OK Boomer” to dismiss the thoughts and opinions of anyone over 55. If you’ve never heard of it, don’t feel you’re missing out. It’s an internet meme: basically an expression, image or idea that spreads exponentially amongst people who spend a lot of time online. If an older person says something unpalatable to the younger generation, they reply derisively with, “OK Boomer.” The phrase became so popular, that a couple of years ago it was used by a New Zealand MP to shout down an older colleague in parliament. Recounting the incident, India Ross, a journalist for the Financial Times, described the phrase as indicative of “a generational cultural fracture”.
How can we hope to heal this fracture? The solution seems obvious: talk to each other. Listen. The internet (and media more generally) can ghettoise us into only communicating with people we agree with. Or if people do disagree, they end up doing it with such vehemence and spite that social media platforms become the repository of bile, hatred and argument. What happens when we are in a real-life conversation with someone from a different generation?
"Go and talk to someone who is a different age to you. You might have more in common than you think."
For the past couple of years, Zoomers and Boomers have been coming together for a project run by Leeds Museums and Galleries. Young volunteers aged 14 – 25, are part of a curatorial and social group called The Preservative Party. They united with members of the Age Friendly Steering Group to work together on an exhibition. The groups met on Zoom throughout the pandemic, ostensibly to plan the exhibition – but something else happened too. “It ended up becoming a really nice thing, especially during lockdown,” describes Ethan, a member of the younger group. “Nice to have different faces. They had a real respect for us. It was nice to speak to people who were prepared to listen.” Julie agrees. She’s part of the older group. “People were talking about how they felt about Covid,” Julie says. “Sharing that intergenerational feeling helped both parties cope a little better. To put things a little bit more into perspective. A really positive experience.” Lauren was a member of the Preservative Party but got too old (“I aged out!”) and now volunteers to help run the group. “The whole experience taught us that we have more in common than we thought,” she enthuses. “One of the things that came up very early on in our conversations was that society wants to divide the old and the young. Actually, we all experience the same kind of problems, but just a little bit differently.” Julie had the same thought. “I think we have an awful lot in common,” she says. “When you don’t talk and share and engage, you focus on the differences. But when you start to talk and you have that communication and connection, you start to see the commonalities.”
On a very basic, human level, the two groups were able to dispel the myths that have been created about the different generations. These myths were only heightened by the experience of isolation we all went through during the pandemic. Various studies have revealed the extent to which the media propagated ageist stereotypes during the pandemic. One asserted that “Older adults were represented unfavourably in 71.4% of the headlines.” A study in The Lancet highlighted that social media messaging about Covid “characterized older adults as helpless and expendable individuals.” The “OK Boomer” meme developed into a more sinister one: “Boomer Remover”. Black humour? Possibly. But hardly likely to sow harmony amongst the generations. In this light, projects that bring younger and older people together (for whatever reason) take on a far more important role.
“Increasingly, as a society, we are disconnected,” asserts Louise Hannon of the Linking Project, a Bradford-based charity. “Our social groups end up being people who are similar to ourselves. There’s massive value of connecting people of different ages. Both generations gain a lot. It’s reciprocal.” Louise is part of a listening project that brings together pupils at rural schools to talk with older people in their community about the issues that are important to them. “Sometimes these issues are thorny and tricky and highly complex,” she admits. “But I think it’s really important that we get together and talk about them. There are lots of similarities in the issues we care about. And differences too.” The project dispels myths and challenges stereotypes. “We had one older person who said, ‘I had an idea of what teenagers are like. If I hadn’t come, I’d never have known they are lovely!’ That’s a common theme.” One of the things Louise has noticed is how little space younger people have in their day to pause and reflect. “Students said they’ve loved having time to talk,” she says. “And to people they wouldn’t ordinarily meet.”
It's all very well meeting for a chinwag. But in reality, the generations can learn a lot from each other. What can older people learn from younger people. “There was a lot of learning,” says Julie from the Age Friendly Steering Group, recalling her experience with the young people. “They are obviously a bit more digital-savvy, so they know all about QR Codes and things like that.” Generation Z inhabit a digital world, far more than older people. “I didn’t know anything about mobiles or how to use a computer,” says Sita, a member of Age UK’s Chatty Café. The group meet every week at Chapel FM to talk and work on activities. “My grandson – he’s 19 – taught me how to use it,” continues Sita. “I didn’t know how to put the torch on. I didn’t even know it had a torch. I’m computer literate now.” Kath, another member, agrees that young people can teach their elders. “You learn from each other all the time,” she says. “I’ve just set up my own website, with the help of a younger friend.” It works the other way round too. “There are so many skills out there that the older generation have, that younger people haven’t learned,” says Kath. Her father was a builder and her mother was saddler; Kath’s parents passed on their skills to her. Sita is passing on her skills too: “My granddaughter said, ‘Grandma, you cook so nice – I want to learn, so when I leave to go to university, I can cook like you.’ The older generation have a lot to give the younger ones.” It’s not just skills young people can learn – older people often have a different way of looking at the world. “The interesting thing was the perspective,” says Julie from the exhibition group. “Younger people felt things were quite large, which perhaps to older people weren’t quite so big, in the grand scheme of life – because we’ve been through more. Helping to put things into perspective.”
“My nana taught me how to cook – she was a chef,” says Grace. “My other nana taught me how to sew – she was a seamstress. And my dad taught me how to knit!” Guess how old Grace is? 61? 71? 81? She’s 21. Grace is the living embodiment of someone defying their stereotype. Alongside her friend Emily, she’s visiting Age UK’s Chatty Café to listen to the stories of older people. The pair are art students. “We’re taking real life stories from intergenerational groups,” Grace explains. “Then doing a multi-media installation, an immersive experience.” Emily, also 21, adds, “We want to value people’s stories and bring them together.” Both agree that some of their fellow students can stereotype older generations. “A lot of the discussion at uni is heavily political,” explains Emily. “Young people are left-wing and they put the older generation as right-wing. There’s such a divide.” Kath, 60, raises her eyebrows. “We’re not all right-wing,” she retorts. However Kath does recognise a difference in the way older and younger people talk about these issues: “I was taught never to argue about politics and religion!”
The generations are indeed divided by politics. The British Election Study of 2019 revealed that “younger people are less likely to vote than older people”. Elections are “increasingly polarised along age lines, with younger voters being more likely to support the Labour party and older voters more likely to support the Conservatives.” Whatever their party politics, people of different generations care about the same issues. YouGov keeps a record of what things are important to people of all ages. They ask people what their top political priorities are – and they are the same, whatever your age. Over the last 12 months, young people and older people consistently show they are concerned with the economy and health. Despite our political affiliations, it’s the issues that unite us. And doing something about them. Lauren from the Preservative Party noticed this when planning their exhibition. “We are all raging about the same kind of problems, uniting over the same kind of solutions,” she says. “We’d all campaign about the same kind of issues – like toilets. Where can you find a toilet these days? Once we realised that we all had the same kind of ideas, it was never an ‘us and them’ situation.”
To get things done, we need to work together on the issues that affect us all. Louise from the Linking Project talks about a “ripple effect” that takes place after conversations happen. Once you get people together to talk, you don’t know quite where it will go. At one of the listening events, the idea of a new youth club was mooted. “I would love it if that youth group was set up,” enthuses Louise. “It would be one big action, directly as a result of an older person saying, ‘It must be really hard to be a teenager round here. I see that.’ And a teenager saying, ‘There’s nothing to do’. But seeing something happen, some action, that would be lovely.” The conversations between the Preservative Party and the Age Friendly Steering Group eventually led to an exhibition called Overlooked at Leeds Museum. As well as a specific section about ageing, the exhibition had features that were directly influenced by the older group. Legible information, extra seating and officially “the most accessible chair in Leeds”, according to youth engagement curator Jordan Keighley. Money is scarce, the Cost of Living crisis is biting and we are continually divided by politics and algorithms on the internet. If we want to make a change, we have to come together. “It’s about creating that community,” says Carolyn, one of the older people at Louise’s listening events.
Don’t worry if you find the concept of changing the world exhausting. We’re not all campaigners! Rest assured, talking is enough. Mixing with people of different ages is good for us; it can be an end in itself. In his book How to Live Forever, Marc Jacobs writes “when younger and older connect, the intergenerational relationships built are a route to success in early life and a key to happiness and well-being in our later years.” The science backs him up. Studies show that engaging with people of all ages is good for your health.
Julie has a theory: “A long time ago people lived together in different generations,” she says. “You had your grandparents living in the same house with children.” Now we live more atomised lives, we have to artificially create ways to meet and connect. It might be an “letter exchange” between a school and a care home. “Answering questions from a young person about their life can unlock something in a care home resident’s brain,” says Naomi, who worked on a letter writing project. Plenty of these exchanges sprung up and flourished over the time of the pandemic. Shine writer Judy was recently invited into her grandson Sam’s school (alongside other older relatives) to talk about what life was like when they were kids. “The children’s faces were shining at the end of the afternoon,” says Judy. “Sam still talks about it!” Often youth groups team up with older people to do a litter pick or do a gardening project. You may have been part of one yourself. If you have, you’ll know the joy of doing something positive together.
There’s more to Julie’s theory. She thinks there’s something special about people who are at either end of life: the young and the old. “They are often vulnerable,” she says. Often, they don’t have a voice, or power. Julie continues: “The people in the middle - the parents - are busy doing the living, the jobs, keeping things going day-to-day.” But at the extremes there can be a bond, a special relationship. “There is real value on having those two perspectives coming together,” thinks Julie. Imagine if the generations weren’t pitted against each other. Imagine if instead of Zoomers vs Boomers, we had Zoomers and Boomers in the same team. Go and talk to someone who is a different age to you. You might have more in common than you think.
Q+A Carolyn & Barrie Wharton
Carolyn Wharton is a volunteer and trustee at the Sherburn Visiting Scheme, which offers services for older people in the area. The Scheme was approached by the Linking Network to liaise with a local high school and meet young people to exchange ideas. Carolyn roped in her husband Barrie, who is the chairman of the local U3A branch. The couple, both in their 70s, are incredibly active in the community of Sherburn-in-Elmet and they relished the chance to connect with younger people.
What prompted you to get involved with the listening event?
Carolyn: Communities need more opportunities for different generations to meet, to connect. It is about all living alongside each other. If we could do more of that, we might have fewer people making assumptions. You hear things like, “Young people drop litter everywhere. They come out of school in crowds. They’re intimidating. They do damage.” And likewise, from the other side, younger children think older people have it fine, they get everything. It sounded a really good way of breaking down barriers. You get to 70 and you forget what being 15 or 16 was like. During Covid there was a prime example of older people being very anti-young people. They had gone back to school, but we weren’t all vaccinated yet. There was still social distancing. People would say, “Look at them – there’s no social distancing there!”
Barrie: I can remember, when I was young, someone had a go at me for what I was doing. I remember thinking, “I bet he did the same thing when he was my age.” I always make sure I never forget what I was like. There’s a couple of lads near here who go round on a motorbike, go up to the fields. I don’t have a problem with it – because that’s what I used to do! I can distinctly remember what I was like. I was a bit of a rebel. I was expelled!
If you could write your younger self a letter, what would it say?
Barrie: It’d be totally irrelevant what I’d write because I’d just ignore it. It would probably be sensible – and I wasn’t sensible at that time. I think I’d have advised myself not to go along the route I was headed. I was very good at school, but I just lost interest. I have ADHD and medication wasn’t around back then. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 39.
Carolyn: I’m the opposite. I would like to have said, “Be more adventurous.”
What was your experience of meeting the young people at the event?
Carolyn: There was actually quite a lot of shared interests. They want the same thing for the community as I do – that the environment we live in should be pleasanter. It should be litter-free, there should be more green spaces.
Facilities in the town are really lacking for their age group. As older people, there’s so much going on for us. So many activities: the bowls club, walking groups, the U3A, camera club. But if you just want to hang out with friends, aged 13 or 14 – there’s nowhere to go
Barrie: Wherever you go, you’re going to get scowled at – by older people! Actually, I got on really well with the young people. We talked about all sorts of things. Our thoughts were very similar in what we were concerned about. But they don’t have the freedom I did. I used to go out on a Saturday morning and spend the whole day out.
Carolyn: Covid has had such a massive impact that I didn’t necessarily expect. One of the things one of them said was,
“We look back at our primary school and it was wonderful. Now, life is just work. It’s so stressful.” I look back and I don’t remember feeling that when I was 13. I was impressed at how they coped.
What part do you play in your grandchildren’s lives?
Barrie: They all have totally different characters. We have one that can be quite nervous. I have guided her to do things–one of them was to go on a zip wire. It was weeks before her parents knew about it! They were quite staggered. When you’re a parent, you’re very busy. I didn’t have the patience that I do now.
Carolyn: We were living in Nottingham- shire and we came back to live round here, specifically to be near them. It’s so nice to be on the doorstep.
You have a teenager living in the house at the moment?
Barrie: We’re hosting a Ukrainian family. It’s going well. You have to have total trust, but there haven’t been any problems.
Carolyn: There are 3 generations of one family. The father has stayed in Kyiv.
Barrie: I’ve just started teaching the teen- ager to code – she’s very bright. She’s picking up very quickly. She studies a hell of lot. Very mature for her age.
Carolyn: She’s a beautiful pianist too. It made me cry, the first time she played.
Why is it important for the generations to mix?
Barrie: Is it tribal? The young can gain knowledge from older people. There’s a lot we can offer them And they can offer us a lot too. Being with them makes you feel young too. We need to mix more.
Find Out More
The Linking Network
Age UK Chatty Café
Age Friendly Steering Group
0787 1371 819
The Preservative Party part of Leeds Museums & Galleries
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