Can’t the generations just get along?

Mutual incomprehension between old and young people can run deep. But we have to respect each other

January 25, 2024
Image: PjrTravel / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: PjrTravel / Alamy Stock Photo

“That makes no sense!” Any parent of teenagers—indeed, any teenagers—will be familiar with this sometimes rather outraged, sometimes despairing cry. The younger person looks at the world the adults have created and is unimpressed, and angry.

Older people hear these impatient and disdainful criticisms and are unconvinced, and every bit as impatient as their accusers. In the workplace grown-up bosses may find the attitudes and behaviour of their younger colleagues troubling. “They’re really annoying,” the actor Jodie Foster told the Guardian recently. “They’re like, ‘Nah, I’m not feeling it today, I’m gonna come in at 10.30am.’” 

Tension between the generations is hardly new. Rebellious teenagers first became what we might now call a “meme” in the 1950s. In 1965, when the Beatles were awarded the MBE, a Canadian politician called Hector Dupuis was among those who returned their honours in protest. Dupuis declared that he did not want to be placed “on the same level as vulgar nincompoops”.

Today the mutual incomprehension between the generations can be deep. Grey-haired folk are frustrated by what they see as the unreasonableness and plain silliness of the Instagram and TikTok “influenced” youth. The young see a burning planet, toxic and corrupt politics and the impossibility of achieving a lifestyle even close to that enjoyed by their parents—especially where home ownership is concerned—and they howl in protest.

The decline of deference and the weakening of some aspects of social hierarchy have loosened tongues. Perhaps some of these tensions were suppressed or muted in the past. Now young people, struggling to establish their identity and place in the world, feel threatened by the sneering and hostility shown to them by some of their elders. And they are kicking back. Is there any way through all this? Can we all get along?

In a world where well-intentioned or seemingly benign goals become politicised and turned into ammunition for the culture wars, one may hesitate to use such terms as “inclusion”. In the US a row over DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) activities in businesses and organisations is getting increasingly heated—so much so that companies are choosing to rebrand DEI as something else: just part of ordinary management training, for example.

But if we are to get along with each other there has to be a recognition that while people may be different, they also deserve respect. The business psychologist Binna Kandola has some sensible and pragmatic advice for those troubled by tensions at work and in wider society.

“Diversity is about counting the numbers, and inclusion is about making the numbers count,” he explained in a recent episode of The Nowhere Office, a podcast I present with Julia Hobsbawm. “Inclusion is about: do you feel valued, respected, do you have a contribution to make and is it being recognised. One [diversity] is a statistical measure, one [inclusion] is about how you feel,” he added. “You don’t get the benefits of a diverse workforce unless you are also inclusive.”

When conflict (especially interpersonal conflict) arises, it is time to pause and take a step back. Sometimes, Kandola says, we have to have a conversation about how we are going to have the conversation. By definition we are not always going to be aware of our “unconscious bias”. (Some find this term provocative or even irritating. Kandola defines it simply as “a misleading cognitive tendency”.) But these can be hard matters to broach. He suggests one way of raising concerns: “Do you realise when you said that it had this effect on me? I would appreciate it if you didn’t say that in the future.” Not every colleague will be able to handle even this mild observation, preferring to advise others to “toughen up” or to be less sensitive. But Kandola is undaunted. “Speak as if you’re right, listen as if you’re wrong,” he advises. “Listen and be prepared to learn from other people.”

The now fashionable concept of “psychological safety” is much discussed, but risks being misunderstood. It does not mean being nice all the time and never having a cross word. Some conflict—at work and in society—is inevitable. The workplace needs to be “safe for disagreement, not from disagreement,” as Simon Fanshawe, the former comedian turned diversity consultant, says. “There is no culture if there is no conflict,” says the anthropologist and organisational consultant John Curran.

We are all in this together. But can we all get along? We had better hope so. We had better give it a try.