The Generations Are Not Different, We Are

We have all heard older generations talk about younger generations as having no motivation, as being lazy, as “not like we were.”  There is a whole host of shortcomings older generations enjoy laying on younger generations.  “Kids today . . . .”  For their part, younger generations like to regard older generations as “dinosaurs,” uncool, as unable to relate to the issues they face in the modern age, especially in this age of constant technological innovation.  But the bottom line is this:  it is not between generations that a gap exists, but simply a different set of priorities between people—even the same person—separated in age by 20 or 30 years.  The gap is the 20-year evolution of our highest priorities.  Generations are not different—people’s sensibilities change as they get older.

One of the things I learned as a parent was that it was impossible to go to bed unless I knew everyone of my children was where they needed to be for the night.  When they were young, this meant they were home, all the homework was done, their teeth were brushed and they were ready for bed.  When they were teens, it meant being home or safely at a friend’s where they were staying.  In short, it was impossible to sleep as a parent without a clear head.

I remember my own parents not being able to sleep when one of us was still out and had not come home yet.  When I was long out of the house and had my own family, I once asked my father, who looked very tired, when was the last time he had a good night sleep.  He answered, “Around 1961.”  The year I asked him the question was around 2002. I think older generations carry with them that desire to sleep with a clear head.  It is hard to rest comfortably without a sense that everything is where it needs to be.

When we are young and single, we have little or no sense of that desire.  That desire comes with responsibility—whether it is marriage, children, a mortgage, stacks of bills—all dependent on us.  That is not to say the younger generation does not face its own meaningful responsibilities—it does.  Their responsibilities are  simply very different in nature.  Young people are grappling with the question, “What am I going to be?  What am I going to do for the rest of my life”?  I think it is safe to say, this is a very daunting question.  Even if you attend a great school or have a great job, you could very well be asking yourself the question, “Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?  Is this the job I want to define who I am?”   The older generations have already asked and answered that question in one way or another, even if not to their ultimate satisfaction.

Older generations tend to be more settled in to whatever their personal lives have brought them.  Not so with younger generations.  Perhaps there is trouble with boyfriends or girlfriends; young marriages can be a bit stormy; novice parenting can be much more melodramatic than veteran parenting.  All of these things can create anxiety in younger generations that simply may no longer be a  part of the lives of older generations.

The bottom line here is that younger generations are no different than older generations were when the older generations were younger.  The means and methods of life and living might change—cell phones and all the other developments in modern technology are ready examples, but the generations themselves are all the same.  Each generation just likes to think of itself as so different and unique.  But the big questions we face, the big circumstances that shape our lives are no different today than they were 20 or 50 or 100 years ago.  The mechanisms change, the technology changes, some of the norms and expectations change, some dangers become more serious and some dissipate altogether, but the only thing that changes in the human animal is our priorities as we evolve from being young and single and anxious to change the world to older and settled and comfortable in what we have become.