Twice a week, I head to class with a cohort of graduate-level fiction students ranging from age 23 (that’s me!) up into the 80s. Most of the time, we talk about each other’s work with thoughtful compassion. Most of the time. Sometimes, powerfully-rendered stories penned by 20-somethings get written off as lacking in experience. As naïve, superficial, and wide-eyed.
It’s not just a theme in literature workshops. Undermining the experiences of younger generations is endemic in everyday conversation, and has been throughout the course of history. According to a 2018 Medium article written by Jason Feifer, editor in chief of Entrepreneur, “Our earliest texts are littered with youth bashing. From 600 to 300 BC, texts of the ancient Greeks complain of children becoming tyrants, contradicting their parents and wolfing down the best treats at the table.” He goes on to explain that cultures have blamed people with fewer years to their name for destroying language and marital customs. Today, Millennials receive a hefty serving of condescension for eating their weight in avocado toast, “killing” the collective’s work ethic (and mayonnaise, fast-casual chain restaurants, and the American dream), and being notoriously “entitled.” Gen Z, too, are “aways on their phones,” charmed by instant gratification, and just generally, “snowflakes.”
Generational divides have caused a rift between people that, in my opinion, is far wider than a difference in age truly merits. We talk down to each other when we should be talking to each other. And I’m calling for an intergenerational ceasefire—on both sides of the age spectrum.
It’s true that generations are shaped by the historical events that occur during their lifetimes: Baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964, according Pew Research Center) had parents who fought in World War II and watched as their friends went off to fight in Vietnam. Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) saw the invention of the first personal computer in 1984 and watched the towers fall on 9/11 during their formative years. And Gen Z’ers (DOB 1997 to 2012) are the “digital natives” born into the world of technology. How could these monumental events not play a role in forming how we see the world? But when we lump the experiences or characteristics of entire age groups together, we only end up with generalizations—not an accurate depiction of what age cohorts are like, but broadly painted brushstrokes that help us dismiss (not understand) their individual experiences.
But to begin thinking of people as individuals and not types, we first need to listen to one another. And to do that, we need to figure out how to talk to one another.
It feels like all my life experiences are stripped away simply because I haven’t had enough of them.
As a woman in her early 20s, I find I’m spoken down to so often, I silently chant, “Please don’t let me be the youngest person here…” each time I enter a room where professional small talk is required with an RSVP. Someone says, “What could you know about insert topic here? You’re so young,” and suddenly, it feels like all my life experiences are stripped away simply because I haven’t had enough of them. Like what I’m feeling now is only an illusion of what it means to be a fully realized human being. And when an older person is told they need to “get with it” or is dismissed for being a “dinosaur,” I venture to guess that’s how they feel, too.
Lara Fielding, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of Mastering Adulthood, tells me, however, that in most cases, condescension isn’t the intention. “Sometimes, what is perceived as ‘talking down’ to someone is really the speaker claiming their position of authority,” she says. Meaning, both parties feel like they have a relevant and true perspective to add to the conversation. So while those unwanted words of wisdom may sting, the person you’re speaking to might not be actively trying undermine your perspective. On the contrary, they’re doing the same thing you’re doing: Stating their truth.
Knowing this might take a bit of the burn out of the offending statements. And so, too, may using a conversation formula Dr. Fielding shared with me. Step one: Validate the other person’s perspective. In my case, I’d say something along the lines of, “I understand that you’re older, you have more experience than me, and you want to share that,” advises the psychologist. Then, state how you’d like them to change their behavior: “It makes me feel undervalued, though. Would you mind letting me finish my thought?” And finally, you show how acting this way will benefit them: “If you could hear me out, I think it would make our relationship so much better.”
This goes both ways: If you’re asking someone to be considerate of your point of view, you need to consider theirs in return. And heck, there’s a good chance you’ll learn something.
I want to leave you with a metaphor of sorts that I think summarizes what I’m trying to get at here. A recent study hypothesized that time appears to go by quicker when you get older because your mind no longer processes the images it takes in from your environment (that tree, that song on the radio) at the same speed it could when you were younger. When you’re young, you’re bombarded with new stimuli, and you process your experience at such a rapid rate that time seems to slow down. Everything is new; you’re learning so much—how exciting! As you age, your neural pathways get more complex, and it takes longer for stimuli to get from your eyes or ears to your brain for processing. Those twisting, turning paths: That’s knowledge. That’s “life experience.” Both ways of seeing the world are true and valid, but they are different. And it’s only by being aware of these differences that we can come together.