Hey Gen Z, Boomers: It's "OK" to Disagree

By The Age of Aging Archives
Cover image for  article: Hey Gen Z, Boomers: It's "OK" to Disagree

It's been fascinating to see how fervently our different generational beliefs have played out in the media these past few weeks. Good for Gen Z for popularizing its "OK Boomer" retort to let everyone know that it bugs them when boomers use generational stereotypes; and hats off to the boomers for standing their ground with pride.

While conflict makes for entertaining reading, guess what? This is not a contest and no one's going to declare a winner. Maybe we're missing the real point: Generations have always disagreed with each other and always will — and that's OK.

We classify people by generation because we believe that the way they share historical experiences and social trends leads to commonalities in their behavior, habits, and values. Each generation is born into a unique location in history, so is influenced differently by the differing context in which they live. In this regard, we are fundamentally destined to be different and, thus, prone to disagree with each other.

As a young boomer, I was part of the anti-establishment generation that came of age rejecting and rebelling against conformity. We were righteous activists who experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, challenged the norms of sexuality, protested for women's rights, and crusaded against an unpopular war and political corruption. Not only did we not fit into the existing American culture, we proudly and defiantly identified as being a counterculture. We went out of our way to be despised by the older generations and we were absolutely resolute in that purpose.

So, how is it that we can sit here today feeling surprised and annoyed that the millennials and Gen Z see the world differently than we do? They are no different now than we were then. They're simply behaving the way any new generation does in the context of a new era of experiences and socio-political influences.

Assuming that our generations will continue to bicker, what can we learn from this cultural dynamic and what are the implications for marketers?

Gaps Are Good

Our brief glimpse back in time has reminded us that there has always been a pattern of generational friction. As long as we live in a changing world, it's going to be normal for a new generation to adopt unique values and behaviors as part of their cultural adaptation process. That said, when we refer to these normal differences as a "Generation Gap," we're creating and perpetuating an animosity between the generations that is a distortion of reality.

What's more, we think of a gap as problematic, so we react in one of two ways: We either set out to try to fix it or, failing that, we take sides, since there's inherently no middle ground when you have a gap. And this is where we are today — taking sides, pointing fingers, and thinking that someone is going to declare a winner.

In the end, the gap that we're currently preoccupied with is normal and it's not going to go away. We need to embrace our differences in generational values as being a natural part of change — change that is usually for the better.

Look for the Bridges

The recent social media flurry has us believing that "OK Boomer" is the beginning of a movement and the end of friendly generational relationships. Time will tell, but in all likelihood, we will soon move on and put most of this behind us. In the meantime, the fanning of the supposed generational fire is deflecting attention away from lots of inter-generational harmony.

With all of the bashing going on, it's easy to forget that most millennials are the children of boomers. Remember the soccer moms and the helicopter parents? These were boomers who were more actively involved in and dedicated to their children's lives than any generation before. So, did their devout love for their children suddenly go away when the first "OK Boomer" T-shirts hit the market?

On the contrary, many millennials claim that their parents are actually their best friends. The two generations are sharing many of the same experiences, while also collaborating for common good in activities such as caregiving and community service.

So, before you look to widen the differences, look for the bridges instead. Better yet, see if your brand or business can build generational bridges that don't yet exist.

Listen Up

If you've been eavesdropping on this generational debate, you've surely been fascinated by what's being said and how it's being said. This is a rare opportunity for marketers to get a free, firsthand understanding of each generation's core beliefs and their corresponding behaviors.

While smart marketing is always in touch with what people want and why, the very best marketing is that which demonstrates an understanding of how people are feeling. The generational nuances that we're witnessing are coming from a deep, emotional place and they are sure to persist.

Pay close attention to what you're hearing today because it will pay dividends tomorrow. The more you listen, the more you will learn, and the more you will have to leverage in marketing that demonstrates that you understand your consumers.

In the end, it's OK to disagree and it's OK to have a generational gap. Both of these phenomena are the consequence of an underlying dynamic — generational diversity — that is normal and benevolent. If you look back in time, each successive variation in generational values has proved to be constructive in fueling positive and enduring cultural change.

If it's true that our differences serve a higher-order purpose, then it's time to accept them for what they are and move on to bigger and better things. Just imagine what would be possible if boomers, Gen Z, and millennials all. came together and used the power in their numbers to fulfill a common cause. At a time when our country's feeling pretty divided, it's awe-inspiring to think of the possibilities.

Photo courtesy of BoomAgers

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