6.12. Intergenerational Conflict

All this intergenerational antagonism may seem natural. But it isn’t.

Intergenerational conflict is a common source of friction in communities.

Surprisingly, in an era when racism, sexism, and other forms of group-bashing are pretty taboo, older folks often won’t hesitate to slam teens and young adults for their perceived flaws and failings.

And young people, understandably, aren’t terribly fond of all the insults and condescension.

All this antagonism may seem natural. But it isn’t.

It’s the result of the creation of our mass education system—and the invention of adolescence, largely out of thin air—at the turn of the twentieth century.

Young people used to spend a lot more time with their elders. But the Industrial Revolution had made things complicated. Now, adults had to go to work. Kids either had to go to work too, hang out unsupervised, or go to school.

It’s not surprising that school became the preferred option. But what we can forget today is just how revolutionary that was.

There used to be no such thing as adolescence. A massive, scholarly review of over 200 preindustrial societies found that 60 percent of those societies didn’t even have a word for it.

Furthermore, in those societies, most children and teens spent the majority of time with same-sex adults—not with their peers, as they do today.

It was in tandem with the growth of our educational system—which took kids and put them together all day with their peers—that we started to see adolescence as a “natural” phase existing between childhood and adulthood.

When you put a bunch of people together all day—regardless of their age—they tend to form their own culture.

They develop their own beliefs, values, codes, tastes, preferences, desires, and ways of interacting.

By the 1950s, youth cultures were clearly seen as distinct from adult cultures—a gap which has only grown in the decades since then, as businesses have increasingly marketed to teens, and each generation of youths has put their own stylistic spin on being young.

I’m not trying to deny the benefits of our educational system. But I think it’s about time we consider the ill effects of keeping entire generations of young people away from adults, other than their parents and teachers.

Is it really surprising, when we spend our first quarter century or more in a totally separate world from everybody else, that we have trouble building strong, cohesive communities?

If we want young people to be more mature, maybe stuffing them into warehouses with their peers and a few authority figures isn’t the best way to model the behavior we want to see from them?

The latest neuroscientific research claims the brain isn’t fully “developed” until we’re in our mid-20s. But what if that’s the result of this system of age segregation that flies in the face of how we did childrearing until 150 years ago?

I know a lot of adults don’t particularly want to hang out with teens…and most teens are glad to return the favor.

But this is a video series about community—and I think this is one of the biggest impediments out there to strong communities.

We should encourage much, much more positive, genuine, intergenerational ties. It may be one of the best ways to improve our communities.


This is the 104th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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