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Generations United: Communicating Across the Gap

By Chris Watson

We try to refrain from saying, “that isn’t the way we use to do it”, but we find  ourselves muttering those words more frequently. Then, inevitably, we get the “look”, but with an eye roll evidencing  the difference between our generation and theirs. It is the moment when we realize that there truly is a generation gap.

Modern technology has accentuated the gap. A World War II veteran, who knew a radio as a large box with tubes, can now video call his great-grandchildren with a cell phone. A Baby Boomer, who lived and breathed 45 RPM disks, vinyl, and liner notes now accesses thousands of those same “records” stored on a device the size of a match book. A match book, by the way, is something a Millennial (the generation born after 1990, coming of age in the new millennium) wouldn’t understand. Who needs matches when you have “vaping”?

Generations Defined

The terms thrown around for years by marketing experts and journalists echo in our pop culture: Traditionalists or Greatest Generations ( born from 1900-1945), Baby-Boomers or Boomers (1945-1964), Gen X (1965-1979), the Millennials (1980 – 2000), and our latest generational addition, iGen.  Internest charts abound defining the influences in each generation. For the Greatest Generation it is WW II.  Boomers?  Civil rights and the Vietnam War. Gen X? Watergate, the energy crisis, end of the cold war.  Millennials?  School shootings, AIDS, and 9/11.

Yet all of these events are  shared throughout the generations. People born in 1940 remember Watergate and those born in 1977 remember 9/11. So why the divide? Why paint a group of individuals with so broad of a brush?

“People always want to know how things relate to them personally,” states Lynnette Werning, President of Blue Water Communications. “Whether the subject is an art exhibit, a new article of clothing, music or everyday news, how it impacts individual lives is always paramount in communication.”    

Werning, whose company works extensively with the Toledo Museum of Art, continues. “Word of mouth is still a powerful way of communicating whether you are 20 or 80. People are interested in what their friends are interested in. If your friends do it, you are more likely to do it as well.” That makes it easy, unfortunately, to group people into clusters. It defines generations.

More Similar than Different

A common sight in a computer or electronics store is a Millennial teaching a Baby Boomer about a new piece of technology. While it might seem this is an example of a generation gap, when both generations share a bond where something tangible needs to be taught and learned – the gap disappears. According to Werning, this is true for events as well.

“It is not unusual at an event or exhibit at the museum to see three generations (grandparents, parents, and kids) show up to an event together. They may walk away with differing impressions of the exhibition but they all come to have their lives enriched and their minds stimulated by art and culture. As long as the exhibit finds a way to connect directly with the attendee, generation gaps evaporate.”

Art, news, desire, values, jobs, fears, patriotism, sports, and a host of other issues and concerns are trans-generational. Our perspective might be slightly different but the underlying concerns are the same. Retirement is a primary example. For those, born before WWII, pensions were the dominant retirement plan. From Gen X forward, pensions are a shrinking option, often non existent.

Concern over a secure retirement is woven throughout the generations. When the company you retired from is sold to a multinational equity group, the Korean War Veteran will ask, “What is going to happen to my pension?” When the NASDAQ has a substantial drop in a day a Gen X’er will ask, “What is going to happen to my 401K?”  It is the same question. They might seek their answers in different ways, one waiting for the mail while the other checks on line, but they seek similar answers.

Werning agrees. “In communication, regardless of age or generation, you still have to deliver messages and get people to respond to your message. Your delivery mechanism might change but the message and the call to action remains. It might be easier to reach certain groups through print and another through broadcast, but the medium doesn’t change the fact that you want them to listen.”

Generations Blended

Memories of downtown Toledo illustrate the generational divides and similarities. The Greatest Generation, and most Boomers, remember downtown Toledo as shopping at places like The Lion Store (eventually bought by Dillard’s) and Macy’s (formerly LaSalle’s Department Store). They remember naming towering buildings like One Seagate and The Toledo Edison Building and identifying those buildings as world headquarters of Fortune 500 companies. Downtown was the place to be.

However, many Boomers and certainly most Gen Xers readily identify downtown as a scene of corporate flight and project failure. Many companies have left the downtown area to move to the suburbs and it is not uncommon to hear someone talk, about a shopping area called “Portside”, something which most Millennials don’t even know existed.

Of course, those perceptions are continuing to change and blend across generations.  Ask almost anyone and they will tell you downtown is cool. After all, downtown is where you see the Mudhens, the Walleye, and other fun events from the circus to Disney on Ice. Millennials have rediscovered the area and are hanging out there and moving in by the score. The revitalization of the Warehouse District, the recently passed entertainment zone along the Adams Street Corridor, and the opening of Hensville adjacent to 5/3 Field are just a few of the projects that are redefining downtown. Across generational lines, people are enjoying downtown again.

Don’t Call Me That!

No generation likes to be categorized. Millennials are particularly sensitive to the subject, but the feeling is ubiquitous throughout age groups. Yet, if you go by the demographic charts, it is easy to see why each generation doesn’t like to be identified as a generation. Baby Boomers view themselves as much too transformational to be lumped into a group. Gen X sees itself as too independent to be part of the crowd while Millennials think the term is pejorative. 

Werning identifies why we are uncomfortable with labels. “I think that anytime you use stereotypes to communicate it is wrong. People simply don’t fit into categories as neatly as the demographic charts would like.” She continues, “We are all unique individuals, if you engage us as individuals, not as some hypothetical generation, we will respond.”

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