The "Generation Gap” - How can we cope?

By Prof. (Mrs.) Niranjanie Ratnayake

A recent article in the ‘Educator Australia’, had a cartoon, in which the teacher is collecting a holiday assignment. She had asked her primary school pupils to write an essay on ‘How I spent my Holidays’; a student holds up his tablet and says “You can check my Facebook account”!

The article went on to quote a primary school Principal: “We’re in a kind of gap where we’ve got some educators hanging on to the traditional viewpoint of schools, and others who are looking at 21st century education and preparing kids for the digital world. This gap has ramifications for how well educators prepare children for the 21st century workplace”.

“It’s become a type of tension. We’ve got some parents and teachers who live on Earth and we’ve got our students at school who live on Mars. As a principal, if you haven’t got your teachers working around 21st century learning skills, you’re not preparing your students for the workplace that they’re going to go into.”

I consider myself to be an educator. I feel qualified to call myself that, after spending my entire working life of 43 plus years – other than a few short gaps during sabbatical leave where I was involved in projects - teaching and making students learn engineering.

The funny thing is, unlike in a normal job as an engineer, where you would be having colleagues who grow older with you and clients of various age groups, in my job, as teachers we grow older while the students we meet every year remain the same age! Initially there would be students who are only a couple of years younger than you and maybe some who are even older than you. So you have to try hard to look older and mature in order to be heard and taken seriously. Then you get older, and the students become younger and younger in comparison. It really hits you when the children of your former students start coming to learn from you! Well, then you realize that you are seeing another generation of students and that the ‘generation gap’ is real! You have to learn to understand their language - or ignore that at your own peril.

You are lucky if you also have grown up children of your own, or nephews and nieces, and have some idea of what they are going through in life. Otherwise, there will be a lot of unlearning and learning needed to relate to the students who are about 20 years younger to you.

I think, the generation gap that we are facing in the 21st century is far wider than what our predecessors faced – due to the ultra-high speed at which things are changing in the world. Globalization, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, the Internet of Things and access to information through IT - are all ahead of us and the older generations are fast becoming outdated. What used to be stable for at least 10 – 15 years in the 20th century has a half-life of only one or two years now! Even if you are not a person who wants to “keep up with the Joneses”, often, life’s demands are such that you need to change with the world - just to keep your job, perform your duties well and be a useful member of the society. Otherwise we may have to look back and wonder “who moved my cheese?”

As a Professor in engineering, I find it interesting to look back on how we have changed our way of doing things, to keep moving with the world, although our systems have a lot of inertia and red tape which hampers rapid changes. We have had to learn-as-we-go, to embrace new educational and information technologies, new methods of education and, of course, keep up with advances in our own fields of engineering so that we are abreast of the rest of the world and our graduates are competent in their work places.

Changing with the times and with the rest of the world is good and necessary. However, on the other hand, I feel that there is merit in traditions that give identity, stability and robustness to systems – and which prevent irreversible changes without proper evaluation of long-term impacts.

The challenge is to confront the changing times and the ‘generation gap’ that these changes produce, without conflict. King Hussein of Jordan expressed this beautifully when he said "It is my firm belief that I have a link with the past and a responsibility to the future. I cannot give up. I cannot despair. There's a whole future, generations to come. I have to keep trying.”

We all know that generations are named in the western world based on the years of birth, viz:

  • Silent Generation: Born 1928-1945 (75-92 years old now);
  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964 (56-74 years old now);
  • Generation X: Born 1965-1980 (40-55 years old now);
  • Millennials: Born 1981-1996 (24-39 years old now);
  • Post-Millennials: Born 1997 to date (23 years and below at present),

Sociologists and demographers have identified certain traits that characterize the different generations. These attributes are very much influenced by the political, social, economic and cultural events that a generation grew up with. Our generation, which would be the “Baby Boomers” – also referred to as the “Me generation” by some – is attributed with being experimental, individualistic, free spirited and social-cause oriented. Our children – who would be mostly “Millennials” - are attributed with the traits of confidence, tolerance and also a sense of entitlement and narcissism. This is according to the psychologist Jean Twenge. The introduction of social media has augmented collaborative skills and created a preference for team-oriented working environments among the millennials – a feature which was not there in generations in the pre–internet era.

Can the Generation Gap be narrowed through education? I believe it can, but individuals of both sides of the gap have to be educated.

"A father must lead his children; but first he must learn to follow. He must laugh with them but remember the ache of childhood tears. He must hold the past with one hand and reach to the future with the other so there can be no generation gap in family love." ~ June Masters Bacher

I believe this is what education should target. If the older generation is willing to acknowledge that there are some things it can learn from the younger generation, as much as it has some things to give through the experience it has - and the younger generation is willing to acknowledge that the experiences of the older generation is in fact not a bad thing to learn from, then the gap could be narrowed. For this, ‘education’ should really be focused on the spiritual development of the young and the old - to learn to impart compassion, empathy and deeper understanding of others.

As long as the older generation maintains that they know best because they have lived longer, or because their times were the best times, or because their way is the only correct way and, therefore, they should have the final say, the younger generations will rebel. The gap will widen. I can clearly see this happening at the IESL, where the younger generation of engineers are getting really frustrated with some of the older ones who are clinging on to archaic ideas and resisting changes -without accommodating the needs of the younger generation. We are all becoming senior citizens now, and we must let the juniors take over the wheel. We think that the younger generation these days does not respect their seniors - without realizing that we were also once young and restless. I often feel that the younger generation, particularly the younger generation of engineers, is smarter, more capable and perhaps even better behaved than we were at their age. The best thing we can do is to take the back seat and let them drive - but be available to provide guidance and advice if they need it. It is hard sometimes to remember that ‘My Way’ need not be the ‘only way’ of doing things.

Change is inevitable – but as long as we accept change, remain flexible and adapt ourselves to change, life is going to be that much easier. We are lucky to be living in an era where access to information on almost everything under the sun is available through the internet. There is much we can do to support social development and the economic growth of the country, using the knowledge and experience that we have gained over the years, without stepping on others’ toes.

Life expectancy has increased dramatically in the last few decades, while quality of life has also improved tremendously. This of course means that the age gap between the oldest and the youngest adults is increasing and young adults will have many more older people telling them what to do than we had at their age! Shouldn’t we sympathize with them? I end my narration with a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

"Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

If we can relate to that, we may not have to worry too much about the ‘generation gap’

Article forwarded by the Women Engineers’ Forum of IESL


Professor (Mrs.) Niranjanie Ratnayake
Past President,
The Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka

Emeritus Professor
Department of Civil Engineering
University of Moratuwa
Moratuwa, Sri Lanka

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