Thursday, January 27, 2011

Older vs. Younger: Taming the Tension Between Generations

Generational conflicts are a fact of life. Throughout history, older people (even in ancient Greece) have complained about the irresponsibility or rudeness or general cluelessness of the young. And the young have found their parents and generations beyond totally out of touch, hopelessly old-fashioned and obtuse.

However, lately the traditional conflicts between older and younger generations have taken some unsettling turns. It is obvious when reading newspapers, magazines and listening to television or radio news. There are letters to the editor ranting about Baby Boomers and what a drag they are and will be on society's resources. There are seniors who complain publicly about having to contribute to the education and general well-being of other people's children, after they have raised their own. It is also painfully obvious in some communications from younger friends and former co-workers -- who talk angrily (or wistfully) about how nice it must be to be retired and how upset they are that this phase of life may be profoundly different when they're 67, 70 or beyond.  And there are media pundits on all sides talking about generational wars. Media, left, right and in between, fan these generational fires because conflict sells newspapers, magazines and advertising space. These media-fanned tensions can also obscure the realities and challenges we all face -- and need to address together.

We need to sit back and take a collective deep breath. We need to get a grip. And then we must remember how much we all depend on each other -- and on past generations and those yet to come.

Seniors who say "I've got mine!" -- whether this is Social Security or a pension or the fact that their children and maybe even grandchildren have their educations secured -- need to reflect on the reality that having yours is not enough. Looking at the matter pragmatically, your future security depends not only on your own prudence, foresight and luck in life. It also depends on having educated, functional younger generations who will pay taxes and provide goods and services.  This means that younger generations need good food, good medical care and good educational opportunities.  We may have worked to finance our own college educations (more possible before the current explosion of college costs) and those of our children.  But other generations -- from our parents to countless strangers -- also worked and paid taxes to help educate us throughout our years in school.  We paid Social Security taxes for 30 or 40 years or more of employment to support current retirees and to secure our futures. And younger workers, in turn, will do the same.  How can we not contribute to the resources needed to educate them and help them to prepare for the challenges of the future?

Younger generations who bemoan the sheer numbers and needs of Baby Boomers and other senior generations  may be overlooking contributions older generations are making to your lives even as you rant about their greed.  Many young graduates live with parents far longer than previous generations as they struggle to get a foothold in today's job market.  Some recent studies show that younger adults are much more likely to ask for financial help from their parents or grandparents than the older generations are to request help from the young.  So it may be prudent to think twice about advocating for slashing or privatizing Social Security or Medicare -- or you may find yourself needing to contribute to the support of elderly parents or grandparents even as you struggle to support yourself and a growing young family.

Some of the tensions seem to be rooted in stereotypes: greedy golfing geezers taking resources away from younger generations struggling to survive and younger people without the work ethic or drive necessary to make their way in the world.

The trend in retirement these days is less about endless vacations and days filled with golf than it is about older people working part-time or launching new careers or making a major difference as volunteers in schools, hospitals, charities and causes. Most seniors are not independently wealthy and the majority do depend heavily on Social Security benefits.  Most aren't trying to live lavishly, but to maintain their independence and not burden their children.  And some seniors make major sacrifices to help their children.  For example,  Renee, a former co-worker of mine, took a lifelong, major cut in her retirement benefits to leave her job several years earlier than she had planned because her young married daughter had a baby and couldn't afford to stop working or to pay for good daycare.  Renee is now providing unpaid daily loving care for her granddaughter. Despite the financial sacrifices this has entailed for her, she sees it as a wonderful opportunity to nurture her family's newest generation and to help her daughter.

And younger people bring so much to the daily lives of their elders.  It's a pleasure to mentor or encourage a younger person. There are so many talented, hard-working younger people who simply need a chance to show what they can do.  It's a joy to share perspectives and grow through being open to each other's wisdom and expertise.  Yes, the young have much to teach us.  Our children and grandchildren have an understanding and ease with emerging technology that we will never have. (My 16-month old niece Maggie can navigate through an iPAD with lightening speed as I watch in awe.) Need help setting up a new computer system? Getting on Facebook? Learning to Twitter?  Chances are,  someone younger will be there to help.  Sometimes they challenge us.  My younger friend Donnell insists on texting me rather than resorting to "old-fashioned" email -- as part of a goal he has to drag me into the technology of the 21st century.  Well beyond technology,  younger and older generations have differing life experiences, different strengths and weaknesses. But these differences can work wonderfully when shared in positive ways to enrich all our lives.

The fact is, we all need each other. We all need support, compassion and understanding. These needs are quite independent of our political beliefs, our ethnicity, or our ages. Instead of focusing on our differences -- and allowing media to fan the fires of conflict between us -- we need to work together to find creative, compassionate solutions to the very real social and economic challenges we face today.

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