The following post was written by Fabienne Vailes, the Language Director for French and holder of a University Teaching Fellowship.
There were the Millennials (Generation Y – born in the 1980s and 1990s), children of Baby Boomers and now Generation Z or Gen Z. Gen Z have been the source of a lot of debate in the media with Psychology professor and author Jean Twenge calling them iGen or Generation M and Stein ‘the Me Me Me Generation’ in his 2013 article.
At the end of October, Jeremy Vine sparked an online debate after posting a video on his Twitter account stating that baby boomers are the real snowflakes and that they ‘should get off youngsters – 20 something’s back’.
Whether we agree or not with the above, younger people clearly generate a lot of discussions amongst parents, educators and society in general. And our students seem to struggle to ‘get us’.
What if instead of talking about ‘generational differences’, we used a different approach?
The issue with a focus on generational differences
The danger with the constant analysis of behavioural differences between generations, between baby boomers and ‘millennials’ in this instance is that it can lead us to ‘other’ as defined by Merriam Webster dictionary ‘to treat or consider ‘young people’ as alien to oneself or one’s group (because of different racial, sexual, or cultural characteristics). It creates a divide and a notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
We seem to apply this ‘othering’ to Gen Z and Gen Z to us. ‘The other’ becomes misunderstood which is brought about by a lack of effective communication. Poor communication and understanding meaning that ‘the other’ feels ‘we do not get them’. This leads to an inability to understand ‘others’ from their perspective.
Nirmala (2013:1)[i] explains that in general the “other” is anyone who is separate from one’s self. The existence of the others is crucial in defining what is “normal” and in locating one’s own place in the world. The other is perceived as lacking the essential characteristics possessed by a group and hence is considered to be a lesser or inferior being and therefore is treated accordingly.
But when we act this way, this is likely to affect our relationships with ‘the other’ and to create a separation. This might in turn create a sense of loneliness and social isolation.
Loneliness is often divided into two elements according to the theories of Weiss (1973): emotional loneliness, which is caused by a lack of close and intimate social relations, and social loneliness, which is caused by a lack of wider social contacts[ii] .
Social isolation is generally agreed in the literature to be more objective than loneliness and relates to the extent to which an individual is isolated from social contacts including friends, family members, neighbours or the wider community.[iii]
Whether it is loneliness or social isolation, both have been linked with numerous physical health problems such as depression (Wang et al, 2018)[iv], dementia (Holwerda et al 2014)[v], suicidal ideation (Stickley et al 2016)[vi] and an overall increased risk of dying earlier[vii]
But what if there was a different and more positive approach to this?
Young people as ‘a new evolving culture’
Herbig[viii] said that culture can be defined as the sum of a way of life, including expected behaviour, beliefs, values, language and living practices shared by members of a society. It consists of both explicit and implicit rules through which experience is interpreted”. Hofstede refers to culture as a “programming of the mind”[ix].
Isn’t it this specific concept of culture that the media is referring to when they look how young people behave differently from their parents and grandparents?
What would happen if instead of using generational differences we were inspired by Intercultural Communication and started looking at our children and students as ‘a new evolving culture’? We could adopt the approach that culturally agile expats take when encountering a ‘foreign culture’ which shares different rules or views from theirs. They observe their natural reaction to thee foreigners’ thoughts, feelings or behaviours, particularly if they are extremely different from their own.
They also become more tolerant and understanding towards them. They even are a bit curious and start wondering what beliefs the foreign culture holds to behave in that specific way.
I believe we could try to use and develop these same skills or what Deardoff[x] calls intercultural competence or the ability to develop over time the targeted knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions. These skills adapted from Byram[xi] (1997)’s work on Intercultural competence include “Knowledge of others; knowledge of self; skills to interpret and relate; skills to discover and/or to interact; valuing others’ values, beliefs, and behaviours; and relativizing one’s self.
This intercultural expertise is relevant to everyone.
Of course, all actors in education (learners, staff and parents) are concerned by this notion of intercultural competence and we could all benefit from improving the aptitudes advocated by experts.
So, next time any of us (Gen Z or older) is tempted to use words that encourage ‘othering’ and ‘generational comparisons’, why not pause, consider this concept of a new evolving culture and become much more curious about the recipients’ ‘programming of the mind’? This is likely to lead to far less ‘separation’ and far more ‘attempts at ‘understanding’ and a development of ‘empathy’ which decades of work[xii] suggest fosters and maintains close relationships in particular. This is of significant importance as supportive relationships buffer people from stress and its detrimental effects on health by providing positive affect, a sense of predictability and stability in one’s situation, and a recognition of self-worth (1985:311).[xiii]. The opposite results of loneliness and social isolation in fact!!!!
[i] Nirmala, S The idea of othering in J.M Coetzee’s waiting for the Barbarian New Academia (Print ISSN 2277-3967) (Online ISSN 2347-2073) Vol. II Issue IV, Oct. 2013
[ii] iii De Jong Gierveld and Van Tilburg (2006) ‘A 6-Item Scale for Overall, Emotional, and Social Loneliness’ Research on Aging 28 (5) pp. 582-598; Victor, Scambler and Bond (2009) (p.584)
[iii] Victor, Christina, Bowling, Ann, Bond, John and Scambler, Sasha (2003) ‘Loneliness, Social Isolation and Living Alone in Later Life’ Research Findings: 17 from the Growing Older Programme
[iv] Wang J, Mann F, Lloyd-Evans B, Ma R, Johnson S (2018) Associations between loneliness and perceived social support and outcomes of mental health problems: a systematic review. BMC Psychiatry. 29;18(1):156. doi: 10.1186/s12888-018-1736-5.
[v] Holwerda TJ, Deeg DJ, Beekman AT, van Tilburg TG, Stek ML, Jonker C, Schoevers RA (2014) Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL).Journal of Neurology Neurosurgy and Psychiatry. Feb;85(2):135-42. doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2012-302755.
[vi] Stickley A, Koyanagi A (2016) Loneliness, common mental disorders and suicidal behavior: Findings from a general population survey. Journal of Affective Disorder. 197:81-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2016.02.054.
[vii] Perissinotto, Carla, Cenzer, Irena Stijacic and Covinsky, Kenneth (2012) ‘Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death’ Archive of Internal Medicine 172 (14) pp. 1078-1083 lv Perissinotto, Cenzer and Covinsky (2012) (as above) p. 1081 lvi Berkman, Lisa, Melchior, Maria, Chastang, Jean-François, Niedhammer, Isabelle, Lecierc, Annette and Goldberg, Marcel (2004) ‘Social Integration and Mortality: A Prospective Study of French Employees of Electricity of France – Gas of France’ American Journal of Epidemiology 159 (2) pp. 167-174
[viii] Herbig, P. (1998) Handbook of Cross-Cultural Marketing, New York: The Haworth Press
[ix] Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values, London: Sage
[x] Deardorff, D. K. (2006), The Identification and Assessment of Intercultural Competence as a Student Outcome of Internationalization at Institutions of Higher Education in the United States, Journal of Studies in International Education 10:241-266
[xi] Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters
[xii] Davis, MH, Oathout HA (1987) Maintenance of satisfaction in romantic relationships: Empathy and relational competence. Journal of Personality Social Psychology: 53(2):397-410
Morelli, SA, Lieberman MD, Zaki J (2015) The emerging study of positive empathy. Soc Personal Psychol Compass 9:57-68.
[xii] Cohen, S, Wills TA (1985) Stress, social support and the buffering hypothesis. Psychol Bulletin 98: 310-357