The concept of the generation gap is one that has become part of our cultural vernacular. Reputedly coined by renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, the simplest definition of the concept is the differentiation (or gap) of values, attitudes, or behaviors between members of an older generation and a younger generation. Typically, the concept of the generation gap is used as an explanation of conflict between parents and children within individual families. The concept gained particular notoriety during the 1960s and 1970s, when numerous articles and books commented on the differences between baby boomers and their parents.
The gaps between generations can be considered in two particular ways. The first is when comparisons are made at different times between generations at similar ages, such as comparing a parent’s high school experiences relative to his or her child’s high school experiences. The classic example of this is the popular saying by older family members, “when I was in school, I walked a mile in the snow.” The second approach is to examine across groups at the same point in time. For example, parents and adult children may experience conflict about child rearing, whereby the gap may be defined in terms of current differences in child-rearing beliefs between children and their parents. Most studies from the 1960s and 1970s were based on the latter approach.
Generation gaps emerge out of the differential experiences of what demographers refer to as birth cohorts. Birth cohorts are groups of individuals born within a similar time, typically 10-or 20-year intervals. Typically, cohort members have unique experiences that affect their human development in similar ways. This uniqueness of birth cohorts is linked directly to the level of social change within a given society. The greater the degree of social change (i.e., immigration, economic development, political instability), the more unique birth cohorts become. Thus, the characteristics of birth cohorts influence generation gaps in two key ways. First, they emphasize the distinctiveness of different birth cohorts. Second, through shared experiences and memories, members of the same birth cohort form deep bonds with each other, often reinforcing that which makes them unique to other generations.
What are the implications of the generation gap? At the family level, generation gaps may increase ambiguity and discord between parents and their children. At the societal level, researchers and policy makers are concerned that increased parent-child discord may potentially alienate aged parents from their families, essentially making them more dependent on governmental sources of support in old age.
As our population ages and as the nuclear family continues to undergo radical transitions, there has been a renewed interest in the generation gap. This interest has been translated into the development of intergenerational programs that are aimed at reducing divisions and ambiguity between generations. Intergenerational programs are most frequently found in schools, child and adult day care programs, community centers, and civic organizations and youth groups, but federal and state initiatives also exist. However, we still do not know how effective these programs and initiatives have been on larger social and cultural processes that produce the generation gap.
- Generations Together, http://www.gt.pitt.edu/ Generations United, http://www.gu.org
- Mead, (1970). Culture and commitment: A study of the generation gap. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Putnam, D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Rossi, , & Rossi, P. (1990). Of human bonding. New York: Aldyne de Gruyter.