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The Great Generational Divide

24 Aug

Recently my wife Diane and I have been watching  television commercials for  the Toyota Venza, We’ve just noticed these  advertisements,  although they have been   around since last summer. They feature twenty-year olds  making contemptuous or  patronizing comments   about their   parents’ boring lives. While their children are talking, the parents are using their Venza SUV to connect with friends, attend concerts,  and go bike and horseback riding.

Created by the Saatchi & Saatchi   advertising firm, these “Baby Boomers Gone Wild” commercials show a lot of   hostility towards the supercilious younger generation.  In the best commercial a clueless and condescending Facebook user expresses concerns that her parents are becoming “antisocial”,  because they only have 19  Facebook friends and don’t have a “real life”. She bases this on” part of an article” that  she read online. The commercial ends with her looking at pictures of puppies online while her parents are living it up with their  real life friends.  At least one young blogger criticized the commercials as  illustrating how much  the “self-absorbed baby boomers”  misunderstand generation X   and millennials.

I suppose we  like these commercials because   some of  the condescension  rings true. Our oldest son, a computer engineer,  is only half joking when he says that  he thinks it’s his job to drag us into the 21st century by buying us electronic devices.  When he asked Diane for ideas for her birthday gift this year, he totally ignored her suggestions and immediately latched on to my comment  that a GPS for the car might  be useful.

In some ways  these commercials may be payback for the 1988  Cutlass Supreme commercial  in which advertising maven  Joel Machak  introduced the famous line, “It’s not your father’s Oldsmobile.”   These advertisements catered to generational conflicts,  proudly proclaiming the “The New Generation of Olds. Oldsmobile shut down  in 2004  and ironically many believe the brand was killed off  by the “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”  advertising campaign,  which alienate the traditional   market, without winning new converts.

Besides auto commercials, intergenerational hostilities are seen in other areas. “Mom Jeans”, for example is a  pejorative term for a kind of high-waisted and big-legged women’s pants  that are considered unflattering and hopelessly out of style. They originated in a 2003 Saturday Night Live skit  featuring a fake brand of jeans by that name.

“Dad Jeans” soon   followed. The Urban Dictionary says  these are jeans  that are no longer fashionable with  tapered legs,  high waists, and brand names that were cool  10 years ago. They are worn by aging men,  in denial that they are no longer hip, who have children, and drive SUVs (Venzas perhaps?).

Not even the president is safe from such snarkiness. In 2009 President Obamawore a pair of faded, slouchy dad jeans to throw out the first pitch at the  All-Star Game  and   was later seen wearing Dad Jeans during a vacation at  Martha’s Vineyard.   Asked to defend his jeans,  the president  said, “I am a little frumpy,  those jeans are comfortable, and for those of you who want your president to look great in his tight jeans, I’m sorry — I’m not the guy. It just doesn’t fit me. I’m not 20.”

During his presidential campaign Rick Santorum was unmercifully teased for wearing an article of clothing that I personally favor—  the venerable, yet unappreciated, sweater vest. I think much of the critical reaction was rooted in intergenerational hostility. Generation X comedian Demetri Martin once said, “… vests are all about protection.   Like a life vest protects you from drowning,  and bulletproof vests protect you from getting shot,  and  sweater vests protect you from pretty girls.”

Although generational conflicts have been seen throughout history, we may be facing something entirely unprecedented.   Digital technology has fundamentally changed the way in which knowledge and information are shared in our society.

In the past if a young person wanted to know how to do something,  like making an  apple pie or fixing a leaky faucet, most often they would ask their parents.  Today, however, with the abundance of  digital information, only an internet connection away,   traditional  teachers and family elders are no longer the  most credible or available sources  of  information. I even  find myself looking at You Tube videos before   attempting  most home repairs these days.

It’s not only young adults that are relying on these impersonal sources of information.  On-line schooling has recently made the leap from technical training and  college level  education to  the elementary and secondary school populations. I suppose  people  in my generation occasionally  used television, radio, or other media,  instead of elders,  for  learning functional skills, as well as acculturation. These media, however,  lacked the speed,  immediacy, and  interactivity of current technology. The internet is a source of information that responds to  your  specific questions and is available 24-7.

The type, format, and  rate of presentation  of  on-line information is also totally under the control of the learner. Also the source is impersonal and thus the exchange has less threat than might stem from feeling like one  is   ignorant and dependent upon a superior .  The young person avoids having to acknowledge their lack of skill or information and perhaps what they see as  a  critical attitude on the part  of  elders.  Our daughter and her husband really  seem to prefer getting their information online  even in areas in which we have  a lifetime of  experience. During an argument they once   said to us, “Check your expertise by the door”.   (not that we hold a grudge.

Since young people use their  information-seeking skills to find  the information,  they can justify   anything they learn as being their own idea, without  acknowledging the fact that the content ultimately came from somebody else’s parents.

Besides interpersonal  and family relationships,  generational conflicts also effect  business and economic activities. For  many years researchers and consultants have been exploring ways for  organizations to reduced  such conflicts and their  negative  effects on productivity and efficiency.

Harvard Business Review blogger Tammy Erickson has described four major sources of such conflicts   in the work place 1. Baby Boomers tend to perceive work as a place, as opposed to something you do.  With the mobility of various electronic devices,  younger workers often don’t see  work   associated with a particular location. 2.   Baby Boomers may be more  comfortable in using face-to-face   communication, in contrast to the electronic modes favored by  many younger workers;  such as  e-mailing,  texting, instant messaging, twitter, etc   (3.) Older workers tend to be linear learners  who read  manuals, obtain information ahead of time, and engage in pre-activity training.  Younger workers often prefer “on-demand”  learning style  in which they only learn things  when they are practically  needed , not beforehand.   Finally Boomers  typically  prefer having  established  schedules and place value on planning. Younger workers may feel more comfortable with  impromptu  and  spontaneous meetings and  work activities. Erickson believes just understanding these differences can help reduce workplace conflict.

So if you see me in my  dad jeans and sweater vest, you can’t  be sure if  I’m getting ready to  go on a vigorous hike  or maybe  take a nap. It all depends on what Diane has planned.

Based on a column appearing in t he Southern Indiana News Tribune

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