Understanding the Generation Gap


Experience shapes lives.

It used to be called “the generation gap” and it appeared sometime in the 1960s to explain the vast difference in worldviews between baby boomers and their parents. Back in those days most young people couldn’t understand what made their parents think what they were thinking and largely thought of them as old fogies who couldn’t understand the modern world.

For me the penny dropped a couple of weeks ago while speaking to group of Toronto-area homebuilders about the so-called mature market. As I was explaining my belief that peoples’ worldview is shaped and set in stone during the first decade of life, it occurred to me that the generations previous to the WWII baby boom had had some fairly harrowing experiences. Those who were born as a result of the World War I baby boom, between 1919 and 1929 had their attitude toward the world indelibly influenced by what took place during the 1920s. Back in those days life was a struggle. The average workweek was 50+ hours with only one day a week off work and much of that was devoted to going to church. Wages were low and families worked very hard to make ends meet. No one ever spent money on frivolous things and people wouldn’t think of throwing something that could possibly be fixed away. This is the generation that I call “the strugglers”.

The generation born between 1929 and 1939 had the Great Depression as their most predominant influence. Work was scarce and competition for jobs was fierce, as men rode the rails in search of seasonal employment. The social ethos of those days was that if you had a dime you didn’t spend it, but saved it for such a time that it was really needed. I’ve heard anecdotes of how some families used the same tea bag a week for everyone’s daily tea. Often families would survive for months on end off what they could buy out of a jar of change mom managed to amass by taking in laundry. I call this generation “the savers”.

The generation born between the years 1939 and 1946 grew up with WWII as the big event in their lives. It gave them to understand that life was a temporal proposition at best and sometimes your life could change in the blink of an eye, as when a military chaplain showed up at the door to break the news that a family member had been killed or was missing in action. This was a generation of kids that grew up with strong moral opinions about right and wrong and most saw family members that were in some way affected by the consequences of the war. I call this the cautious generation, as their experiential basis created a worldview in which it was often advisable to duck.

Now compare the three generations above with the generation of baby boomers. These children were born into a world of unprecedented prosperity and despite the Cold War, of sustained peace. This generation had open access to education, often subsidized by the government and upon leaving school had no trouble finding gainful employment. For the baby boomers life was a breeze and everything was possible.

I no longer wonder what makes people born between 1919 and 1946 so peculiar in their worldview, as I believe that if one had to live through one of these major eras, let alone two or three, it would tend to radically affect the paradigm through which one viewed the world.

The so-called “generation gap” has always been about how each generation sees the world; kind of like having six blind people describe an elephant by each touching one of its different parts. For me this was a major revelation that vastly increased my understanding of how attitudes and lives are shaped.

Written by Klaus Rohrich on Friday, 29 January 2010

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