Intergenerational Conflict: Understanding How Different Generations Handle Disagreements

By Brenna Kehew Sculley

by ELYSIAN Magazine

So many generations coexist today, each with its own unique set of values, beliefs, and experiences. With baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, Generation Z, and even the emerging Generation Alpha all out in the working world, conflicts arising from differing perspectives are inevitable. 

Families are faced with challenges like simultaneous caregiving needs for children and elderly parents, and baby boomers in particular – finding themselves in the “sandwich generation” – are dealing with managing both. These managed responsibilities create tension when one generation feels as though the other isn’t contributing fairly. It is easy to compare the breeziness of millennials living single and traveling well into their 30s as a rebuke of the baby boomer trend of settling down younger and building a family. Yet relating to someone with a different worldview than your own requires an understanding of the way they relate to the issue at hand. 

Each generation carries commonly identified traits. Baby boomers like to be known for a strong work ethic, effective decision-making, and valued tradition. They often approach conflict in a direct and assertive style, preferring face-to-face conversations and emphasizing hierarchy and seniority. 

Millennials have just recently overtaken baby boomers as the most populus generation in America, as reported on the 2020 Census, a statistical example of the head-butting experienced between the two generations. Psychology Today argues that this tension between our two largest generations is actually good: “America has thrived on young adults rejecting the norms of their parents and creating their own way of life.” 

Millennials, currently the largest demographic in the country, value inclusivity, collaboration, and social justice. They tend to approach conflict with a focus on empathy, seeking to understand diverse perspectives.

Meanwhile, Gen Xers are statistically the “middle child” of generations – caught between two larger generations, the millennials and the baby boomers. Generation X was born during a period when Americans were having fewer children than in earlier decades. Gen X tends to value independence, adaptability, and work-life balance. When faced with conflict, Gen Xers often prefer a pragmatic approach. They may seek the middle ground, blending traditional and innovative solutions.

The youngest working cohort, Gen Z, are often referred to as “digital natives,” and they are known for embracing diversity and inclusion. Pragmatic and goal-oriented, with an entrepreneurial mindset, they prioritize stability and personal growth. 

Born from 2013 onward, the emerging Generation Alpha is growing up in a world driven by technology and digital connectivity. While still too young to have distinct conflict resolution patterns, early signs suggest they will be even more digitally fluent and socially aware. As the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, Gen Alpha is expected to approach conflict with a strong emphasis on equity, inclusivity, and environmental sustainability.

Advice columns are rife with children and parents navigating miscommunications and simmering resentments of unfulfilled childhood dreams, a tale as old as time. The ethical debate on our responsibility to our parents goes back centuries, as seen in the Confucian Filial Obligation and Care for Aged Parents, which defines children’s moral duty to their parents as it has been understood in the 2,500-year-long Confucian tradition as the “root” of morality. This push and pull between generations is ever ongoing, but working together as a family to give space for different perspectives can help us understand each other better.

Beyond just family drama, intergenerational tension is responsible for issues in the workplace, too. While many companies argue that this diversity is essential for a productive and innovative workforce, it requires employees to have a nuanced approach with each other, along with informed knowledge on how generational differences can be worked out. 

These generational perspectives can be both a source of tension and an opportunity for growth within families and workplaces. Recognizing that each generation brings unique strengths and insights to the family dynamic allows for greater understanding and empathy. 

Intergenerational conflict is a natural consequence of the diverse values and experiences brought by each generation. As society continues to evolve, embracing the strengths and perspectives of each generation will be essential in creating a harmonious future that transcends generational differences.

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