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Intergenerational War: What Is It Good For?

By: Dr. Scott Brown

"Cultivating Memories Project" 2022, Photo by Sage Milne
"Cultivating Memories Project - Garden Party Event at Goderich Place," 2022, Sage Milne

I’d like to write briefly about the idea of intergenerational community relationships and how we might handle some of the issues that spark up when this topic is discussed. I think this is an important topic not only for our rural communities, but for our broader communities as well. 

I’ll admit that I never really learned or memorized the different generational monikers until only recently. It just wasn’t something that ever stuck with me. The only generational nickname with which I’ve always been familiar is “Millennial” and this is only because it has been thrown at me for as long as I can remember. 

I do find myself thinking about generational differences more often these days, and for two reasons. First, I’m now at a point in my life where I can look both forwards and backwards in this regard. My grandfather is 87 and belongs to the “Post War” or “Silent” generation. My parents are both in their sixties and belong to the younger side of the “Baby Boomer” generation. My students (mostly third-year university students) are largely in their early twenties and therefore belong to the “Gen Z” crowd. I also have two children under the age of four who belong to the tail end of the “Alpha” generation. Who knew? 

Everyone Wins

"Generational Chart" Accessed 2024

Another reason I find myself thinking about generational differences is because everywhere I look it seems to be a topic of discussion. I’ve also noticed that there are (roughly) two different ways generational differences are often discussed. First is the “everyone wins” approach; each generation has its own strengths. Baby Boomers are described as resilient and as having an excellent work ethic; the Gen X crowd is praised for their independence; Millennials are described as excellent collaborators and as having a strong social consciousness; the Gen Z crowd is described broadly as being tech-savvy and as harbouring strong entrepreneurial ambitions. These general descriptions can be fun; it’s nice when everyone wins, and we can console ourselves. 

Everyone Loses

There is also the “everyone loses” approach; each generation has its own shortcomings and sins. It is this (seemingly more popular) approach that is the real motivation behind this opinion piece. If you want to see an extreme version of this approach, look no further than social media. It isn’t hard to find a kind of vitriolic and degrading warfare between the generations where the discussion devolves into a game of blame and cynicism. For example, you can find the Gen Z crowd express an open animosity for the Baby Boomers who had it “too easy” only the leave the younger generations to “pay for a party they didn’t get to attend.” The phrase “Okay, Boomer” signals a condescending dismissal of what is perceived as the selfish and short-sighted mentality of the older generation. In the other direction, the Baby Boomers (also condescendingly) charge Gen Z with a lack of personal responsibility, zero critical thinking skills, and an overtly entitled mentality. 

Is this sort of intergenerational warfare simply a consequence of the current economic situation, however you would like to describe it? Perhaps. Or is this warfare only an extension of a real war between the generations – a war rife with pillaging and deprivation, betrayal and abandonment, and the annexing of limited resources? I’d like to think not. But I’m confident enough to suggest that popular generalizations won’t do much to help us! 

Some Different Strategies

As one step in the right direction, I suggest that each of us concentrate on a version of what is variously described in Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy as “concrete relatedness” or “concrete relationships.” In the context of this discussion, to pay attention to our concrete relations is to attend to the real rather than the abstract relationships we have with those from other generations. It isn’t at all productive to allow abstract generalizations to guide or to act as a surrogate for our real relationships! Perhaps there are elements of truth in the popular generalizations discussed above, but we should ask ourselves if they are true at the level of our own concrete relationships with the real people in our lives. Now, perhaps they are true at this level, but the concrete seems to me to be the place to start in confronting and overcoming contention; your own intergenerational relationships are a microcosm of the intergenerational relationships that make up your community. 

A second strategy for avoiding intergenerational warfare is to operate from the three tension-filled modes as identified by Stanley Deetz (and with which I’ll take some liberties now). Deetz suggests that fully engaged human beings are filled with care, thought, and good humour, and that each of these modes has a strong and a weak version. In approaching intergenerational differences, we should strive to adopt the strong version of each. 

In its weak version, caring equals a kind of detached sympathy. I feel sorry for them; I suppose they do have it rough. But in its strong version, being filled with care “is to attend to the difference of the other, the parts that seem absurd or don't make sense, things that challenge one's own sense of how the world works” (p. 102). In this strong version, we open ourselves up to be changed by others, older or younger. 

Thinking, in its weak version, amounts to criticism and it tends to be oppositional; “the world is seen as filled with relatively fixed interests set in conflict” (p. 102). It’s us versus them. But in its strong version, thinking is a reflection on “the larger social-historical processes by which groupings and interests arise” (p. 102). From here, we can attempt to understand how it is that each generation encountered and grew into a different world. We can come to see each generation as not only having different strengths and weaknesses, but as meeting and emerging out of different challenges. This also leads us away from seeing others as defined by such immutable characteristics as the decade in which they were born. 

Finally, good humour “recognizes the random, ironic, incongruent aspects of life” (p. 103). In its weak mode, having good humour amounts to a kind of cynicism. It is easy to be cynical about intergenerational differences, and to see one’s own generation as the butt of the joke. They’ve screwed us. Or, if you don’t appreciate what you’ve inherited, what do I care, anyway? But in its strong version, humour “works toward the acceptance of the lack of certainty and the awareness that we make it up as we go along” (p.103). There is some ironic humour (a cosmic giggle, if you will) in the fact that every generation, no matter how immortal it feels in its youth, will inevitably become senior to all! We’re the old farts now. There is some comfort and solace in this commonality. Similarly, can we expect perfect foresight from our forerunners? Will perfection be expected from us? Surely, there is some humour in the unintended consequences of even our best laid plans. 

If we’re going to rise to the challenges in front of us, in our rural communities or otherwise, we need a sane, responsible, and healthy approach to thinking about our intergenerational community relationships. There is room (and perhaps an obligation) for unpleasantness and contention, and especially given the large-scale and systemic/societal scope of the intergenerational to-and-fro, but I believe we are in a better position if we also consider our own concrete relationships with those belonging to other generations and approach these relationships with the strong versions of care, thought, and good humour. 


Deetz, S. (2005). Critical theory. In S. May & D. K. Mumby (Eds.), Engaging organizational communication theory & research: Multiple perspectives (pp. 85-111). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

Whitehead, A. N. (1927). Symbolism: Its meaning and effect. New York: Macmillan Company. 

About Author

Dr. Scott Brown, Gateway CERH Research Chair of Rural Organizational Development

Dr. Scott Brown is the Gateway CERH Research Chair of Rural Organizational Development. Dr. Brown is Sessional Lecturer at the University of Guelph. His academic interests include capacity development, organizational development, geography, the adventure of education, and process philosophy.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Gateway CERH. We believe in providing a platform for a diverse range of perspectives, and this article is intended to stimulate thoughtful discussion.

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