Intergenerational Dialogue: It’s a Win-Win

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It’s hard to read—the stinging accusations Boomers, Xers, and Millennials hurl at each other practically every day. That is not helpful.

Before we criticize, let’s first understand. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty,” and he was right. Recent and ongoing generational research is opening the door to a better understanding of what influenced each of us during our formative years—what historical events, demographic shifts, and cultural phenomena helped shape our values, personality traits, and attitudes.

The data is out there in abundance, particularly data related to younger generations: How do you live with them? How do you manage them? How do you work for them? How do you stop them from leaving the church? The list goes on… But if you really want to connect with other generations and learn what makes them tick, you have to talk with them. Note I said you have to talk with them, not to them.

Intergenerational dialogue is critical, but it can only be mutually beneficial if both parties are open to having all the following types of conversations.

Type 1: What do we have in common?

Example: I find it interesting that when my husband and I transitioned to adulthood we faced an economic downturn similar to what the Millennials are facing now. As second wave Boomers, we grew up in a time of wealth, opportunity, and optimism and expected to experience the same; instead, we were hit by the long period of mass unemployment and de-industrialization that plagued the U.S. in 1970s and 1980s. This could lead to discussions about: a) how it feels when reality does not live up to expectations, b) how people can effectively adjust expectations, c) if it is possible to change the situation, and if so, how.

Type 2: What can I teach you?

Example: If I could instill a few tidbits of wisdom, it would be the value of taking time to read and reflect deeply. This could lead to discussions about: a) why knowledge is important, b) what books or articles made us see something from a different perspective, c) what, if anything, do we lose if we don’t stop and reflect.

Type 3: What can I learn from you?

Example: From my Xer family and friends, I would like to learn how they manage to build such strong groups of friends (or what are often referred to as urban tribes) that never fail to encourage and support each other. From my Millennial family and friends, I would like to learn how (despite all the financial pressures and competition) they are able to stay upbeat, pursue their passions, and not settle.

What types of intergenerational dialogue are you willing to have today?