It’s a generational thing
Each of us belongs to a generation, and we often move among members of the same generation. At family or parish gatherings, or other occasions where people of different ages gather, we tend to congregate with others of our own generation. There may even be some light-hearted ‘rivalry’ or gentle banter across the generations.
Respected Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay wrote In Generations: Baby boomers, their parents & their children that “Young people consider their elders to be obstinate, obstructive and outmoded, while they themselves are accused by their elders of showing an inadequate sense of responsibility, lack of experience and idleness, i.e., they are not recognised as adults.” (p 11)
This phenomenon is not new. Revered philosopher Socrates said, “If the whole world depends on today’s youth, I can’t see the world lasting another 100 years.” Socrates died in 399 BCE.
The very young are not usually good judges of age. Most of us can recall thinking a particular teacher was ‘old’ and realising later that the individual concerned was perhaps ten years older than ourselves. Barely a generation gap!
In the photos in my mother’s album (photo corners anyone?), my grandparents look old at my parents’ wedding. Yet they were roughly the age I am now – not old at all! Of course life expectancy was shorter, and the social pressure to maintain a youthful identity for as long as possible was not yet ‘a thing’.
I recall treasured conversations with my grandmother which indicated to me that as she aged, and having raised six children, her wisdom and insight grew.
One story suggests that some of her earlier notions had relaxed: she spoke of a parish family where the children had been raised to believe that choosing priesthood or religious life would be looked upon most favourably. Each of the three children chose such a life – but it was the right choice for only one.
On reflection, my grandmother, who was extremely devout, recognised that there may have been undue pressure on these young people to please their parents – who, obviously and somewhat ironically, had chosen marriage and family.
Amidst a rate of generational change which seems exponential, do we, as adults, think differently from our parents? Mackay writes, “A generation growing up in a world of instability, uncertainty, impermanence and ambiguity will, inevitably, interpret that world quite differently from the way their parents and grandparents interpret it. Each of us uses our life’s experiences, especially the experiences of our formative years, to spin a protective cocoon of values and beliefs. That cocoon, in turn, also serves as a kind of filter: we interpret situations and ideas we encounter in terms of the attitudes we have already formed.” (p 185)
This rings true, and yet, as a 60-something, I often find myself spontaneously reflecting how my parents would react to a statement, event or experience. That’s not to say that my reaction is the same – often it’s not – but in so many ways I am imbued with the memory of their – usually unequivocal! – views. It’s a mixed blessing …
I asked a friend whose mother has died in the last year (her father having died much earlier) whether she felt her thinking was different from that of her parents.
After much thought, Mary-Anne concluded, “My thinking has changed much over my life, due to experiences and ideas drawn from other people and events, but there is definitely continuity with my upbringing and the thinking of my parents, and their parents.
“I think about what Mum was like at the age I am now, and I see such different circumstances. I have a husband, three children and one granddaughter and I’m winding down, planning my retirement. Mum had been a widow for twenty years when she was my age, she had six living children and three grandchildren. She had retired from teaching but was chair of the board for the family business, a role I would hate!
“Who really knows what another person thinks! Or for that matter, how well do we know ourselves?
It’s hard to compare our thinking when circumstances are so different.”
Mackay comes full circle on the influence of one’s parents’ thinking: The most powerful of the influences on most people is the influence of their own parents. The biggest difference between your generation and your children’s generation is … likely to be the fact that – for better or worse ‒ you had your parents for parents, and your children had you.
The values of our parents … are sometimes utterly rejected for some years, or forever. But all those early years of living in a family run by parents with a particular way of looking at the world inevitably affects the way we, too, look at the world. We are always their children … As … [poet] D.M. Thomas puts it, ‘I can see almost nothing that I owe to [my father], almost nothing we have in common. Yet also, at the same time, I smile with his smile, weep with his tears.’ (p 2)
Reflecting on, and sharing, this question has led to some equivocation on my part. Like life itself, it’s not black and white. I believe a younger generation accepts much that is handed on by parents, while also engaging in a degree – a dance ‒ of ‘necessary rejection’ in order to grow as individuals.
At the same time, members of an older generation exchange some long-held convictions for those of their children. Some time ago now, I shared with my mother that I found the formulaic statement, “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins” badly wanting. I would have said a lot more, energised by theological studies!
She said, “Yes, I’ve thought that too.”
In Irishman Fintan O’Toole’s, We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958, he writes of the referenda concerning same-sex marriage (2015) and abortion law (2018). He shares two anecdotes about younger men voting ‘yes’ but worrying how their parents will react.
There’s no question in the younger minds that the parents will have voted ‘no’ – and in each case, the men are wrong. O’Toole says of his father, “He looked at me with deep puzzlement, as if … I had completely lost the plot and become a stranger to Ireland. ‘Sure of course it will pass … Everybody knows somebody who’s gay.’”
Perhaps, rather than ‘do we as adults think differently from our parents?’, the more important question, for all generations, may well be, ‘do we think, and act, and speak, in ways which reflect the best of our upbringing, our opportunities for growth and the core values we have developed?’
Can we write, like St Paul, “we do speak a wisdom to those who are mature, but not a wisdom of this age … Rather we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden…” (1 Cor 2: 6-8)
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