by Julius WiedemannSep 14, 2021
Generation gaps are the source for many insights into behavioural psychology. It is a form to demonstrate that things change not just over years or decades, but over bridges or gaps in perception of how the world works. I am 46, and I am pretty sure that my generation resembles a lot like my parents’ generation, whereas my kids’ generation seems to be miles ahead in so many things. Change is speeding up. Maybe the most important thing to distinguish these two generations is to acknowledge the asymmetric access to information that existed just 30-40 years ago. When my parents and grandparents told me something when I was a 10-year-old, I assumed they knew the truth, and that their sources of information were inaccessible to me. That assumption is no longer at work. My kids’ generation has at least the same access, and very often they display more ability to find sources that are more diverse and expose us to more thinking and self-reflection on our pre-concepted ideas.
We now have all the knowledge of what it is to be a 'digital native' or to understand the difference of not being one. I consider my generation the one in the middle. We were not born digital, but were young enough to understand that that was the way, and to see transformations which were shaping a new world. My parent’s generation was late to catch up. They use social networking tools and even Tinder, but that doesn’t mean much these days. Even though I would consider myself a digital immigrant, I was forced to adopt a different style for survival reasons, and therefore didn’t allow myself to be left behind. Technologically speaking, devices also have generations of performance. And whereas our parents used the same devices for decades, younger age groups have had to adapt to devices that changed many times over, and to processes in which some devices completely disappeared. The Telex, Radio, TV and Fax are good examples of that. When they were not completely substituted, they were completely repurposed. We can sign contracts today electronically, something that is already written in law, and which was unthinkable just 20 years ago in the scale done today.
A generalised description of different generations would contain Millennials (born from the early 80s to 1996) and Generation Z (1997-present), and the Boomers (born from the mid-1940s to 1964). When these generations clash, there is often a sense of disconnection. Whereas older generations see the digital apparatus as a set of tools, younger ones perceive them as values. Ingroup-outgroup bias will imbue an ‘outgroup homogeneity effect’. And that homogeneity is no longer tenable. Kenneth Gillet wrote in an article for the Huffington Post in 2014, that “Digital natives view the world horizontally, in equalitarian terms. Rather than dividing the world into hierarchies, they see everyone as existing on an equal level. They embrace the benefits of sharing things and ideas with each other and, in doing so, they cross boundaries”.
But the current state of affairs does not entail only rosier pictures in psychological behaviour. The hypersensitivity and the post-modern idea that all ideas deserve equal opportunity to be heard are causing a great impact on how we establish dialogues. The Memes (an expression derived from biologist Richard Dawkins’ first book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976) that separate us are filled with stereotypes. But there seems to exist indeed a narcissism of small differences in a lot of relationships.
The open kitchens of the 60s already signalled a change in the dynamic of the homes, which had to do with a different behaviour, more progressive, less waste of space, more communication, and also less separation of classes, with maids being confined to kitchens, and the “bosses” enjoying the home with an on-demand service. Brazil, for instance, passed laws to empower the social security of men and women working at homes over a 100 years after the United Kingdom. Its slavery roots are still visible, but less influential today, and more open for debate. The reason for explaining this is that these societal structures take generations to create new norms, and with that come also the structure of homes, hierarchy, offices, types of companies, and many others. It is hard sometimes to appreciate the amount of changes we have accomplished in the last decades when debates and polarisation seem so abundant. They are ultimately important to accelerate and consolidate rights, but they should come with the recognition that we keep moving forward.
The abilities we see (and many times envy) in younger generations towards the use of technological tools is vital to put older generations in check once in a while. There is no possible evolution without conflict. And the cycle of change just repeats, maybe faster as we advance, because technologies play a larger role every day. To immediately require a greater maturity from younger generations to deal perfectly in the digital realm, can be unfair compared to the maturity we didn’t care about to deal with the freedom of expression we took for granted. And I do believe younger generations are maturing faster. I incentivise everyone I meet to learn with them. They got where they are also because we allowed them to.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.