The Generation Gap: Then & Now

by Nancy Scott

I remember the conversation well. It was the first time I experienced being heard, being understood, by my father. I was telling him about my plans to attend graduate school in another state. Though I was disappointed by his response, I was not surprised when he didn’t think it was a good idea. I had learned the rule well: he was right, and I was wrong. He knew best, and that meant I knew nothing. But I did know some things. True, I was only twenty-three. But I had just finished my bachelor’s degree in zoology, and I knew that the next step toward my intended career in biology was to take the teaching assistantship and small stipend I had been offered and get my master’s degree.

Our discussion escalated until finally the real issue surfaced. To my father, who at age sixteen worked to help support his family during the Great Depression, my decision meant that I would be “living like a worm.” With his use of this expression, by which he meant I would be “dirt poor,” I heard clearly that this was utterly unacceptable to him. I remarked, with great emphasis, that maybe that was okay with me. Maybe, because I was not the one who had grown up during the Depression and wondered where the family’s next meal would come from, because I was instead a child of privilege born during the postwar boom, it was time for me to “live like a worm.” I had never sacrificed for anything of true value to me. Perhaps it was time for me to work hard and scrape by because then what I earned would be mine and not his.

In some ways, my generation invented the “generation gap.” My father’s generation grew up and began their adult lives without rejecting the values and assumptions of the generation that raised them. They did not suspect their parents’ values but rather saw their own youth as an “apprenticeship” into an adulthood that they respected and desired. Not until after World War II was the word “teenager” coined, and films like Rebel Without a Cause identified the clash between the emerging generation and their parents. James Dean’s character was one of the first who spoke for the generation that sought to question everything, the generation that began to identify a growing bankruptcy in the values of the generation that preceded it.

My father and I had a difficult relationship. He liked to say he was a great communicator, and his successful career in sales attested to this. But he was a terrible listener. I struggled for many years with wanting him to hear me and to value my opinions. As I became an adult myself, I grew to understand him better and to value his perspectives and experiences. I came to understand much of what he had tried to tell me, even as I saw how my own life rather than his words had to teach me these things. I have wondered about this over the years and wished I could have heard him sooner. It turns out he was not the only terrible listener. While I complained he couldn’t hear me, I wasn’t hearing him either. My father has been gone five years now. How I wish I could hear his booming voice and ask for his opinion once again.

One of my favorite songs in high school was “Father and Son,” by Cat Stevens. In it, two voices speak past each other: the father, telling his son what he deems important, and the son, responding that his father completely misunderstands him. The father begins:

It’s not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy.
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to know.

And then the son speaks:

How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It’s always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

The song spoke deeply to my experience of my own father, who like the father in the song, had a strong voice that could easily overpower my emerging identity. My own knowledge was different than his, and I felt it could not exist alongside his. I felt deeply the need to “go away” in order to forge my own identity. The son goes on to say, “If they were right I’d agree, but it’s them they know not me.” It was true: my father may have known his own experience, but he was not open to hearing mine.

And so I went to graduate school. While there, I rejected my parents’ values, joined the counterculture, and made my way apart from any wisdom they may have had to offer. I could not hear about life from them; I had to create it for myself.

In spite of my generation’s general distaste for adulthood, I eventually became an adult, though I was probably in my thirties before I could claim the title. As the years have passed, I have become more open to the wisdom of my parents. And as I have watched my close friends raise their children, I have realized that parents are not necessarily the enemy my culture had led me to believe. Rather, most of the parents I know have done the best they could within the limitations of their humanness and sin to love their children, with whom they share the most profound bond. Maybe the same was true of my parents

I was with a small group of friends a while back, and we were playing “oldies.” Sure enough, my favorite Cat Stevens song had joined this category. It was the first time I’d heard it in twenty years, so I turned up the volume and closed my eyes. I traveled back in time, recalling my sense of indignation as I identified with the son in the song. I was so surprised when I found that I now understood the father as well. Could he have been right also? Twenty years later, I saw something I could not have seen earlier: life is long, our choices matter, and with life experience can come wisdom. My heart ached for the misunderstanding that seems inevitable and yet so unfortunate between our children and ourselves. Twenty years later, I was on the other side of the “generation gap.” I wept as I thought of today’s children, who believe they are cut off from any resource in the generation preceding them. And I wept for my own experience of being sold the lie that the generation preceding me had no wisdom to offer.

I’m not sure how much of this “gap” is a natural part of growing up and how much of it is a result of current cultural assumptions or marketing plans that pit one generation against the other in order to sell products. But it makes me sad when my generation is seen as “the enemy,” when actually we may now be able to understand and to offer wisdom to the young of today.

I am on the other side of the generation gap now. I often have the opportunity to listen to and interact with young adults, and I would love to help them understand some things about life. I hear about the older adults in their lives who have become strident in their views and reactions because, like my father, they have more life experience. Yet it feels unfortunate to me that some of these younger ones, who could benefit from wise input they might hear, seem to consider the older generation irrelevant—people who can’t understand because they are not of their own generation.

They are right, in a way, just as we were right in our time: age does not guarantee wisdom. Some older people have not learned from life; they have not opened themselves up to their experience, to be bumped and bruised and benefited by the experience of life and its challenges. Instead, they have closed down to change and growth as they have aged. But other older people are wise. I respect them because they have let life teach them; they have allowed life to be their tutor and have been challenged to learn from it. I want to be open to life teaching me. And I want to model this for the succeeding generation.

I have come to see my father as one of these wise ones. He was someone who wanted to learn from life and grow in wisdom—although he expressed this desire in a “language” very different from mine. He evaluated his experience with an eye toward increasing his understanding of truth and reality. He became more open with age, rather than more closed. I want to follow his lead, and I would love to offer the gift of any wisdom I have to the younger people with whom I have contact. Ultimately, though, they will not learn wisdom from me; rather, they will learn from their own life experience—if they also can remain open.

Can we bridge the generation gap? I’m not sure. The cultural landscape in which I grew up was different from that of my father, and the generation with whom I interact now has grown up within one different from mine. And, unfortunately, sometimes my generation’s strident stance gets in the way of a conversation. We can miss an opportunity because we are not willing to hear about the different country in which the younger generation lives. We may never have an opportunity to share any wisdom we may have because we have inadvertently closed the door to real dialog. By too often closing the door to dialog, we also close ourselves off from hearing what the younger generation knows that we do not. We can learn much from them. We need to try to notice when we, without intention or awareness, say with our posture that we are right and they are wrong. From there, perhaps, we can enter a dialog.

I stated my case to my father with great passion. I told him I did not know what it was like to “live like a worm,” but maybe I could learn—and even benefit by the experience—because working hard for something of value was foreign to me. It was then that I saw insight dawn in his eyes. He paused and was silent. Finally he spoke words I had not heard in twenty-three years: “I can understand that.” He saw it: we lived in different countries, so of course our experience and desires and conclusions would be different.

This was a pivotal moment in my relationship with my dad, and I have thought back to it many times. Now that I am in the “adult” role, it helps me work toward understanding a new generation that has grown up in circumstances vastly different from my own. How can we be a resource for this generation? How can we let them know that we understand, without sounding hollow and condescending? We can open a dialog, become curious, and recognize that they have grown up in a country vastly different from our own. They are the experts on their generation because they know it better than we do. And we may get to contribute our wisdom after all, as it enters into the context in which they actually live.

Copyright November 2007 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Nancy Scott