At some point, we’ve all come across the phrase “back in my day,” a deeply subjective expression which encapsulates a universal phenomenon: the generation gap.

Regardless of the country and context (historical, social, or cultural), the phenomenon has always existed; it has even taken the form of mass movements with a major impact in areas such as music, film, and literature (hippie subculture).

In the twentieth century, young people began to distance themselves physically and aspirationally from the extended family, and after the advent of television and the broadcast of the first films, the intergenerational gap widened, creating a seemingly irreconcilable rift between the “old” and the “new.”

Divided into date ranges, generations reflect more than just time intervals. They are the expression of specific social, political and cultural environments.

If, up until the twentieth century, young people were building their lives close to home and their parents’ mentality, later changes, especially during the Baby Boomers’ period (1946–1964), allowed them to separate their opinions, beliefs, and lifestyle from those of their more traditional predecessors.

In an online presentation, psychologist Ana Niculăeș, who specialises in educational and personality psychology, makes the following description of the generations after 1965:

“Generation X is made up of people born between 1965 and 1980. They are people who lived their adolescence during the period of television expansion, who still read newspapers, listen to the radio, and watch TV. They are tech-savvy and are aware of the benefits of technology, spend quite a great deal of time on social media, but are still sceptical when it comes to online financial transactions.

Generation Y, also known as Millennials, is made up of today’s adults (born between 1980 and 1996). They spent most of their childhood and adolescence without smartphones and social media…they grew up in the boom of the Internet and computers, and developed a ‘love-hate’ relationship with technology. They appreciate authenticity, put more emphasis on ‘experiences,’ such as concerts, social events, or sports preoccupations, and the buying experience weighs quite heavily in the final decision of purchasing a product.

Generation Z—also known as iGeneration, Centennials or digital natives—refers to people born after 1997. About 91% of those who make up this generation have access to smartphones and 90% of them watch YouTube daily. They focus on saving the planet and tend to adopt a vegan and slow fashion lifestyle. They are among the first to grow up with social media and mobile technology—this is the main general feature of this generation.”

Digital natives and digital immigrants

The influence of technology seems to be decisive in the way people relate to reality. From this point of view, society is divided into two distinct groups, represented by “Digital Natives” (those born in the digital age) and “Digital Immigrants” (those who discovered the new communication technologies only in adulthood).

The age of the Internet makes the generation gap manifest even neurologically. Experts point out that digital natives may experience changes in neural structures, visible in communication and social interactions; these experts anticipate undesirable consequences for the future development of the brain and socio-affective behaviour.

Being a click away from any person, news or purchase, and accessing the virtual space anytime and anywhere does not necessarily ensure a better functioning in the concrete, real universe.

The constant contact with the information facilitated by the virtual environment, its simultaneous processing, and the need for multitasking teaches the brain to react quickly to stimuli, in a different way from that imposed by traditional forms of learning. This achievement brings disadvantages as well. People born in the age of digitalisation are considered to have shortcomings due to the fast pace of learning: shorter attention spans, difficulty interpreting the emotional reactions of others, and low social skills.

On the other hand, studies published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, based on research by Professor Gary Small of the University of Los Angeles, suggest that the use of the Internet enriches the activity in the brain areas responsible for making decisions and forming complex reasoning. The results of these studies complete the picture of similar findings, according to which exposure to technology improves working memory and perceptual learning ability (an indispensable element to keep up with the ever-changing world).

If digital immigrants have the advantage of being more methodical in their learning process and performing their tasks correctly, digital natives can juggle multiple information pieces at the same time, and are better prepared to make quick and spontaneous decisions.

A vision of life

Beyond the differences that arise from their relationship with technology, generations also differ in the way they relate to the surrounding reality. A study by the Pew Research Center (Washington, DC) shows that 79% of participants believe that there are major differences between young people and seniors in the way they view the world. A similar percentage (74%) was obtained in 1969, following a survey conducted by Gallup.

The reported differences cover the following issues:

  • Attitude towards people belonging to other ethnic/racial groups;
  • Moral values;
  • Religious beliefs;
  • Respect for others;
  • Political opinions;
  • Work ethic.

At work, the generation gap is a reality that is often visible without a detailed analysis of the work environment. In Eastern Europe, for example, people who were professionally trained before the fall of Communism were taught to be receptive to the orders of their managers, rigorous and obedient, and to view work as a fundamental human duty. Unlike them, young people cultivate freedom of expression at work and in their personal life, demand respect for their rights as employees, and are more flexible in terms of labour mobility.

The generation gap and the conflict between the “old” and the “new”

We cannot talk about the generation gap without addressing the conflicts between the old and the new. The conflicts arise as a consequence of the two sides belonging to different times. They live in a dynamic society, with cultural models that offer certain guidelines to parents while dictating to children that the same guidelines are obsolete, and that it’s best to avoid them.

A superficial and simplistic view of the situation, says psychologist Virgil Rîcu, would lead to the following explanation: “The conflict between generations is the conflict between the old and the new, between fear of the future and confidence in the future.” Parents sometimes tend to ignore the fact that their ideas about the world and life need to be refreshed, while young people fall into the trap of the philosophy that promises that everything new is automatically good.

Intergenerational conflict reveals the need for adolescents to be accepted, free from the pressure of adherence to established norms, and the need for adults to use all their weapons to provide their children with a solid foundation in life.

In-depth, we could say that this intergenerational conflict exposes a power struggle between the parents’ desire to be seen as an undisputed authority and the children’s goal of gaining independence. That is why its culmination is manifested during adolescence, when children try to define their own system of values, expose it and defend it, even at the cost of adult opposition.

It is within this context that the children’s rebellion, their struggle for freedom, and their confrontation with a different mentality ensue. This is when communication difficulties and barriers emerge and lead to emotional distancing, a result that neither parents nor children really want.

“All this is based on the negative emotions that both parents and children experience: sadness, loneliness, helplessness, fear of failure, despair, and anger,” says psychotherapist Mihaela Nicolaev. But the situation is paradoxical, as the intergenerational conflict reflects two absolutely legitimate needs: the need of the adolescent to be accepted and freed from the pressure of compliance, and the need of the adults to use all their weapons (including coercion and intimidation) to provide their children with a solid foundation in life.

The intergenerational bridge

Beginning with the fact that the experiences, opportunities and development environment of the conflicting generations have different roots, a first step in dealing with conflicts is to admit that the adults lack the resources to fully understand the “new” and younger generation.

A second step would be for parents who have not yet reached this point to replace the desire to be “blindly” followed by their children with strategies based on identifying and meeting their needs. They need to learn new communication skills, even if they were not educated in the spirit of freedom of expression. Only communication can build what we call the “intergenerational bridge,” so needed to resolve conflicts.

Another important condition for avoiding conflict is reaching the degree of maturity that allows adults not to burden their children with the task of fulfilling their own unfulfilled plans.

Many parents project their latent dreams and aspirations onto their children, become immune to what the youngsters really want, and fail to observe their real skills and competencies. When expectations are conflicting, adults should not force children, adolescents, or young adults to follow a path that they feel is inadequate.

Conflicts also abate when adults learn to unconditionally support the younger generation. Children who know that they can turn to their parents without receiving criticism, reproach and disapproval, are much more open in communicating their ideas, feelings and projects to them. If they have a cooperative relationship with their family members, young people can better understand and use their potential. However, they are not exempt from proving their responsibility either. It is necessary that, through choices and behaviour, they show a sufficient dose of maturity to gain, over time, the trust of those around them.

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In addition, “clashes” between generations can be constructive if viewed in this way. Managed with patience and courage, conflicts between the youngest and the oldest of us can lead to the discovery of hard-to-reach personal resources, can deepen the connections between people, and can help us better understand the past and the future, with all their mysteries.

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in social work counselling.