The term “intergenerational communication” applies to interactions involving individuals who are from different age cohorts or age groups. Families provide ready examples of individuals whose communication would be classified as intergenerational: parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, aunt and niece, to name a few. These interactions stand in contrast to intragenerational communication or communication between individuals from the same generation or age cohort, such as siblings. Intergenerational communication occurs outside the family context as well. Any interaction between a child and an adult, a young person and one who is middle-aged or older, or a middle-aged person and an older person, fits the definition of intergenerational communication. As a result, much communication in daily life – in the workplace, social settings, and the home – is intergenerational in nature.
Although common, intergenerational communication carries a strong potential for miscommunication and unsatisfying interpersonal interactions. This occurs not only because people from different age cohorts vary in their life experiences, but also because people at different points in the life-span vary in their communication goals, needs, and behaviors (Williams & Nussbaum 2001). Other challenges to satisfying intergenerational communication come from age stereotypes and social role expectations (Hummert et al. 2004), which can also vary across cultures (Zhang & Hummert 2001).
Age and Communication Goals, Needs, and Behaviors
Individuals belong to age cohorts and age groups. Age cohorts are defined by shared experience of historical events during youth and young adulthood that are viewed as formative of shared values (Williams & Nussbaum 2001). Examples include the “greatest generation,” which came of age during the Great Depression and World War II; baby boomers, who experienced the Cold War and the Vietnam War; generation X, or the children of the baby boomers who saw the end of the Cold War and the space shuttle Challenger explosion; and generation Y, who are currently young adults and whose experience may be shaped by the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the events following them. Age cohorts map onto human history. In contrast, age groups map onto the human lifespan: child, adolescent, young adult, middle-aged adult, and older adult. Although the exact boundaries between age groups are difficult to specify, childhood is generally associated with the pre-teen years, adolescence with the teenage years, young adulthood with the twenties and early thirties, middle age with the late thirties through the fifties (and even the early sixties), and older adulthood with age 65 and beyond (Williams & Harwood 2004).
Some intergenerational communication problems, even conflicts, can be tied to the participants’ being from different age cohorts. Examples include the divergent life experiences reflected in the differing value placed on thriftiness by members of the greatest generation and baby boomers, or the importance placed on political activism by baby boomers versus generation Xers. Focusing on these cohort differences can be informative in understanding some aspects of intergenerational communication. A counselor, for instance, might use knowledge of cohort differences to mediate an intergenerational conflict within a family or organization. The cohort approach to understanding intergenerational communication has a critical limitation, however. It presumes that individuals are, to an extent, prisoners of their history, and therefore does not consider the role of individual development across the life-span as an influence on intergenerational communication.
The life-span developmental approach offers an alternative to the age cohort approach to intergenerational communication. The developmental approach recognizes that communication needs, goals, and skills change as individuals move through the various age groups from childhood to older adulthood (Williams & Nussbaum 2001). Laura Carstensen’s socio-emotional selectivity theory illustrates how communication needs and goals differ for those early and late in the life-span (Carstensen et al. 1999). According to socio-emotional selectivity theory, young adults face life tasks (e.g., choosing a career, finding a mate) that make new experiences and new communication partners their primary communication goals. They seek variety and novelty in communication, which increases their risk of experiencing some encounters with negative emotional consequences. Older individuals, in contrast, seek to maximize their positive emotional experiences through an emphasis on interactions with a few well-known communication partners. Socio-emotional selectivity research shows that this drive toward positive emotional experiences reflects awareness of the approaching end of the life-span, which occurs most often, though not exclusively, among those in the older adult age group. These differing communication goals of young and older persons can also lead to misunderstanding and intergenerational conflict, especially within families as they negotiate the amount of time spent together, topics of conversation, etc.
Two communication behaviors have been especially associated with advancing age: reminiscence (Bluck & Aleia 2002) and painful self-disclosures (Coupland et al. 1988). Both may reflect developmental processes. Reminiscence involves recalling and describing past life events. Usually reminiscence focuses on significant events in the speaker’s childhood, youth, and adulthood, and often takes the form of a long, well-practiced narrative delivered to friends or family intimates. Painful self-disclosures involve revealing personal information about a problem or negative life event in conversation with a relative stranger. Examples include the death of a spouse or child, personal illness, financial difficulty, etc. Such self-disclosures could be considered a specific form of reminiscence distinguished by their painful topics, tangential relationship to the ongoing conversation, and the lack of intimacy between the speakers and the recipients. Both reminiscence and painful self-disclosures may serve developmental functions. Reminiscences can be part of a life review that would help older individuals achieve Erikson’s ideal of ego integrity (Erikson et al. 1986). Painful self-disclosures may be used by older speakers to establish their status as individuals, perhaps to reveal to listeners critical events that have shaped their identities or as a means of coming to terms with their identities (Coupland et al. 1988).
Although these two communication behaviors may share developmental origins, they have different effects on intergenerational communication. Reminiscences are more likely to be associated with wisdom and satisfying intergenerational conversations than are painful self-disclosures (Williams & Giles 1996). In fact, Coupland et al. (1988) labeled these self-disclosures painful because they caused discomfort to listeners, not because they were necessarily causing distress to the disclosers at the time of the conversation.
Age Stereotypes and Intergenerational Communication
Because age groups are social groups, intergenerational communication can also be examined from an intergroup perspective (Williams & Harwood 2004). Communication accommodation theory (Giles et al. 1991) provides a framework for understanding how stereotypes about members of other age groups lead to expectations about appropriate communication behaviors in intergenerational interactions. The communication predicament of aging model (CPA; Ryan et al. 1986) and the age stereotypes in interactions model (Hummert 1994) illustrate how young individuals may adapt their communication to negative age stereotypes of decline by speaking more slowly, more loudly, and/or more simply to older people than they would to other young people. That is, they over-accommodate their communication to the negative stereotype, whether or not the older person needs that accommodation. In other cases they might under-accommodate to older listeners by ignoring their wishes or by directing them to behave in a particular way. These forms of communication have been termed patronizing (Hummert 1994) because they imply that older people are less competent than younger ones. Within the CPA model, these forms of talk are linked to dissatisfying intergenerational communication and the promotion of age stereotypes, with the potential to encourage older people to conform to negative age stereotypes in their behavior. Patronizing communication to older people has been observed in many different intergenerational contexts, including not only nursing homes and hospitals but also family and social settings (Hummert et al. 2004). It can even emerge in the workplace as younger workers underestimate the communication abilities of their older colleagues (McCann & Giles 2002).
Although the link between negative stereotypes of older people and patronizing communication has received the most research attention, age stereotypes of young people appear to be associated with patronizing communication from older people as well (Williams & Nussbaum 2001). Young people report that older people commonly speak to them in ways that they view as patronizing, primarily by being under-accommodative to the desires of the young people. Those behaviors include offering unsolicited advice, ignoring their viewpoints, and making negative comparisons between the younger generation and their own.
Social Roles and Intergenerational Communication
Just as stereotypes can affect intergenerational communication, so can communication expectations for social roles. First, social role expectations may conflict with age role expectations. Second, long-term role relationships may evolve over the life-span. Both can contribute to problematic intergenerational communication.
As an example of the first case, supervisors are expected to provide instructions to their staff and to give feedback on staff performance. When the supervisor is from an older age group than the staff, this relationship fits cultural notions of age hierarchy. That is, supervisors’ authority to provide instruction/evaluation derives not only from their position in the organizational hierarchy but also from their expert knowledge gained through experience. When the supervisor is from a younger age group than some (or all) of the staff, the mismatch between the organizational hierarchy and the age hierarchy may be reflected in workplace communication to the extent that the mismatch is salient to either supervisor or staff. Consequences could include tentative communication behaviors on the part of younger supervisors, which would further undermine their legitimate authority, or confrontational communication between supervisor and staff.
The parent–child relationship illustrates the second case. The nominal familial roles stay the same across the life-span. That is, the parent is always the parent and the child is always the child, whether the parent is 40 and the child is 10 or the parent is 80 and the child is 50. On the other hand, the nature of the intergenerational communication changes as the relationship between parent and child evolves across the life-span (Hummert & Morgan 2001). There can be many transitions for parents and children that affect their relationship and play out in their communication, including the child becoming an adult, parenthood for the child (and grandparenthood for the parent), death of another family member, retirement of the parent, and advancing age and frailty of the parent, to name a few. Two of these are noteworthy because they require a redefinition of normative expectations for parent and child roles, represent profound disruptions to the established parent–child relationship, and demand new ways of interacting to maintain satisfactory intergenerational relationships: the transition that occurs when the child moves through adolescence to adulthood and that which occurs as the parent becomes frail with advancing age. In the first transition, the parent must relinquish authority to the developing autonomy of the adult child, resulting in a more egalitarian relationship than had existed when the child was younger. In the second transition, the parent and child must negotiate how to maintain the autonomy of the parent as the parent’s need for assistance grows. Both require balancing competing needs for independence and dependence through appropriate intergenerational communication (Hummert & Morgan 2001). Intergenerational ambivalence (Pillemer & Luscher 2004) about normative behaviors in the parent and child roles can lead to intergenerational conflict during these transitions. However, conflict and ambivalence may be minimized in families that have developed a conversational family communication style (Koerner & Fitzpatrick 2002), i.e., one that embraces nonjudgmental and open discussion of sensitive topics.
Cultural Influences On Intergenerational Communication
To the extent that cultures differ in their values, they can also have different age stereotypes, norms for social roles, and standards for acceptable intergenerational communication behaviors. East Asian cultures place greater emphasis on harmony, age hierarchy, and filial piety (i.e., the obligation of young people to respect and support older people) than do western cultures (Zhang & Hummert 2001). These values might be expected to result in more satisfactory intergenerational communication than in western societies. However, research shows that intergenerational communication problems are not only found in eastern cultures, but they are at times perceived as more dissatisfying by those in eastern cultures than by those in the west (Williams & Harwood 2004). One explanation offered is that young people in the east feel compelled by their cultural values to act politely toward their elders, but do so reluctantly, perhaps because of the influx of egalitarian western values into Asian cultures. In addition, Zhang and Hummert (2001) point out that the same intergenerational communication behavior may be dissatisfying or satisfying within western and eastern cultures, but for different reasons. They offer as an example older people’s reaction to being addressed in familiar terms by young people. While older participants from western cultures find this behavior patronizing because it indicates over-accommodation to negative age stereotypes of weakness and dependence, older participants in China view it as patronizing because it is under-accommodative to the positive age stereotype of experience and high status that underlies the cultural values of filial piety and age hierarchy. These findings illustrate the role of cultural values in standards for intergenerational communication.
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