Devi Kar | Young and old can help each other & bridge generation gap

An interdependent and connected society can yield rich dividends and make human existence far more meaningful

The very young and the very old among human beings are caught up with just the act of living while all the in-between people are mostly busy making something of their lives. Together, they represent the past, present and future and complete the big picture. Hence, it is essential that the different generations and age groups are connected, or else the big picture gets fragmented and people cease to learn from each other. In addition, the lack of connectedness results in the waste of valuable and varied experiences of the past along with the loss of precious knowledge and expertise. An interdependent and connected society can yield rich dividends and make human existence far more meaningful.

An article that I read recently, based on a Pew study published in June 2009 (Associated Press), points to a serious widening of the generation gap in the United States of America, consequent to the rapid growth of information technology. Yet, another more recent study (Research by McCarthy and Stone) published in June 2022 (PRNewswire) entitled, “Goodbye Generation Gap”, indicates that during the Covid-19 pandemic times, the gap between the generations had reduced considerably. McCarthy and Stone happen to be the UK’s “leading developer and manager of retirement communities”. The study revealed that the older generation aged 60 and above (although greater longevity has changed the definition of old age in recent times) and the younger lot (aged 18-59) spent 60 per cent more time speaking with each other since the
start of Covid-19. Evidence indicates that they got comfort and support from each other and mutually imbibed useful expertise and knowledge. The older people leaned heavily on the young for technological know-how and skills, while the younger generation looked to their elders for knowledge, experience and wisdom.

I do not know if any similar studies have been carried out in India. But we teachers have seen for ourselves how our students came forward to get even their tech-unsavvy teachers to become experts at holding virtual classes. Some of my colleagues claim that they had learned more from their students than from workshops and manuals. This reminds me of a little boy who set out to teach his grandfather how to communicate electronically and demystify him about the social media, of which nearly all old people seemed to be deeply suspicious.

When I asked him about the outcome of his lessons, he exclaimed exasperatedly what a waste of time it was. “He learned nothing”, he continued, “and couldn’t remember the simplest of things”! Incidentally, this grandfather “who couldn’t remember the simplest of things” was an expert in company law. But despite the unproductive lessons, the rich bonding that took place in the process, was indeed invaluable.

If a conscious effort is made to harness the knowledge and expertise of older people, the younger generation would definitely stand to gain, while the older generation would not feel useless before their time. One of the main reasons which makes life worth living is to feel needed and useful. Yes, grandparents are often mobilised to babysit while the parents are at work, but this is not enough as this need diminishes as the grandchildren get older. Deliberate and purposeful inter-generational connections are needed to build a rich and integrated society.

When we talk of an inclusive society, we must remember the old people. Even the old people who are unable to contribute actively must be included in all family activities and deliberations. This would guard against ableism in general and make the young sensitive and caring and enable them to understand the process of aging and its accompanying hazards -- after all, they too will experience old age one day. It is a fact that the in-between people (that includes parents, their contemporaries and their grown-up children who are yet to start families) do not have the kind of time and leisure to give company to young children as retired people do.

So far, this piece has dealt with inter-generational connectedness within the family, but if society is to benefit from all its members, connections need to be established across all ages, irrespective of kinship. Today’s children spent most of their day in school, with their peers, or are busy with extra-curricular activities, coaching or tutorials. There is hardly any “unprogrammed” time when they can interact with older people in a leisurely and unhurried manner. I have observed that even when they have a chance to meet people from other age groups, they do not engage in meaningful conversation. They appear formal and exchange mostly mandatory pleasantries. This is because people live and function in disparate compartments. Connectedness to be effective must be seamless, natural and organic. No wonder the 2009 Pew study found that the generation gap was increasingly widening. Expectedly, the study referred to the differences in perception about manners, morals and mobile phones, and not necessarily in that order. According to the two articles cited, the use of the social media and electronic communication in general is responsible for the widening generation gap in the twenty-first century, and the Covid-19 pandemic for closing it -- at least in the United States and Britain respectively.

Instead of allowing external forces to widen or narrow the generation gap, society itself must establish and maintain connectedness between the generations to protect and enrich humankind.

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