“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man,” contends the Jesuit saying, which was popularised by the Up documentary series. These days, we might well say, “Give me a child from a generation, and I will show you the person.” That’s because the era into which you were born has a greater effect on your personality than your family. Indeed, each of us is a member of the tight-knit club, adopting many of the same beliefs, behaviours, and often even outlook on life.

One of the last moments I spent with my grandmother, there were four generations present in the room. My grandmother, who was born in the first decade of the 20th century, sat in a lounge chair with perfectly-styled hair and a summer dress. Women’s print magazines were piled on side tables, forming much of her reading material, and her entertainment was the television, the dominant technology of her day. Her great-granddaughter, seated less than a metre away, texted her friends on her mobile phone, before showing the extended family a new tattoo she recently had inked on her inner thigh.

When we view people as part of a club, the Baby Boomer club, or the Millennials, or Generation X, or Z, we gain much insight into why a person is the way they are. Why are Boomers so obsessed with the news and politics? Why are Generation Z so stuck on pronouns? How come Generation X are so cynical? Why do Millennials have such high hopes for how their life will pan out? And why so many tattoos?

The generations are turning over faster than ever before. While the Silent generation (1925 to 1945) was a stretch of 21 years, the Millennial generation (1980 to 1994) ended just 15 years after it began. As technological change accelerates, people born a mere ten years apart can be released into an utterly different environment. A person born into the era of the smartphone, for example, will exhibit different behaviours to one who predates it, helping explain those teenagers lip-syncing pop songs and pacing out dance trots in supermarkets and carparks. Technology, like the television, the internet, and the smartphone, have a marked effect on not only how we live, but on our values and beliefs.

American author Landon Jones writes: “A generation is something that happens to people; it is like a social class or an ethnic group they are born into; it does not depend on the agreement of its members.” And just like rival football clubs, when people of different generations rub up against each other, it can make for a fiery encounter.

In his 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, Karl Pillemar surveyed 1,340 Americans aged 18 and over, asking them the question: “Do you have any family members from whom you are currently estranged?” He discovered that more than a quarter of Americans surveyed, or 27 per cent, reported being estranged from a family member – a parent, grandparent, sibling, child, and so on. Extrapolated to the US adult population, that amounts to some 67 million people who are estranged from a family member. Pillemar found that ten per cent are estranged from a parent or child and eight per cent are no longer talking to a sibling. Some in the media are calling it a ‘silent epidemic’ of family break-ups.

“When we meet people, it’s devastating to tell the truth,” Skye Ferrero laments, a mother quoted in Pillemar’s book. “We deal with it by being straightforward: ‘Oh, there are problems… we don’t see each other’.” Five years ago, Skye and her husband were cut off from their daughter and nothing they have done since has brought the couple any closer to her. “I’ve been approached by former neighbours and they say, ‘Well, you seem like such nice people. How come it’s like this?’ We’ve been labelled with this black cloud.” Skye thinks the issue is more widespread than it appears, it’s just that people don’t wish to talk it. “This is happening in many families,” she says.

Family estrangement can happen for any number of reasons, notwithstanding highly justifiable ones for why someone may wish to cut contact. But such serious offenses aside, fissures in the nuclear family can also happen as family members squabble over rival ideologies: politics, Brexit, vaccinations, conspiracy theories, pronouns, and any number of headline-grabbing social issues. Nasty comments on social media can inflame grievances, prompting one member to declare, “I’m done. I never want to see or speak to them again.”
American psychologist Jean Twenge, who studies generational differences, writes in Generations: “Appreciating generational differences is crucial for understanding family relationships.” Furthermore, she writes: “At a time when generational conflict – from work attitudes to cancel culture to ‘OK, Boomer’ – is at a level not seen since the 1960s, separating the myths from the reality of generations is more important than ever.”

Other than technology, Twenge identifies two further factors that separate generations. Each generation is more individualistic than the next, argues Twenge, more concerned with personal well-being over obligation and duty, starting with the Baby Boomers who were more individualistic than their more community-minded parents. My grandfather spent his retirement years spearheading community organisations, his daily retirement schedule as busy as it was in his working years. But if we skip ahead to Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979), they were the first generation where having divorced parents was considered normal, writes Twenge; the so-called ‘latchkey’ kids – coming home to an empty house and a plate of cereal and a repeat episode of ‘The Brady Bunch’ on television – this generation is characterised by their independence and waning trust in authority. “They wore a lot of black clothing,” writes Twenge. “Youth protest was out, and cynicism was in. Independent self-reliance was a point of pride.”

Twenge mentions a further factor dividing the generations; each generation is taking longer to grow up. This slow-life strategy is characterised by lower birth rates, and more resources put into each child. “Children do fewer things on their own… teens are less independent… and young adults postpone adult milestones,” writes Twenge.

Unlike the hands-off parenting that many Gen X children received, the Millennials were highly supervised, and pushed into many enrichment activities as kids. At school they were taught to believe in themselves, a curriculum that engendered high self-esteem and optimism; they were the first generation to use social media, using the technology to connect with others, start businesses, and pursue social causes. Millennials are the most educated generation in American history, with many pursuing advanced degrees, often into later age, and hence hitting developmental milestones significantly later. This trend has only continued with Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2010), the eldest of whom are marrying and having children later than any generation in American history.

These three factors – technological change, individualism, and a slower childhood – are causing each generation to look at each other with bemusement, and sometimes even hostility. And as people are increasingly hooked into their own personalised media to share world views with members of their own generation – the Baby Boomers on traditional news and Facebook, Gen X on Twitter, the Millennials on Instagram, and Gen Z on TikTok – families are getting caught in the maelstrom of splintered opinions. And when one’s identity is paramount, as happens in an individualistic culture, then any challenge to one’s identity is seen as a valid reason for some members to break bonds… even familial ones.

What is guaranteed is that as Millennials and Gen Z move along the conveyer belt and the next generations come along, existing within their own media chambers, they’ll in turn chastise us all for our faulty thinking.

This, I admit, sounds a little cynical, but this too is expected. I am, after all, a member of Generation X. I can’t help but be a little cynical.

Image: Portrait of a Family, by Arthur Devis, 1749

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