Intergenerational Dialogues

I always know my ideas are good when everyone else seems to be having the same ones. A few months ago, we were engaged in discussions about what Eldering is and had what seemed like a breakthrough at the time in seeing eldering as the process of “intergenerational collaboration through which we can create a common future”. Since then I have discovered that this is not only not a new idea, but one that is taking off like wildfire. This intergenerational ripple is just beginning with emerging conferences, workshops and articles. By the time the idea reaches academia (as reflected in intergenerational programs in Eckerd College’s prospectus it is pretty much a given. “Intergenerational” is rapidly becoming a new buzzword for working on the myriad intractable problems we are facing on the planet.

Some of the intergenerational conversations are psychological and attempt to empower people by freeing them of patterns and the cultural baggage of their parents, while others are dealing with problems associated with caring for older parents. Others, like Serene Ambition, are focused on how we can more effectively communicate across the generational divide and merge our differing perspectives in the service of projects to create a future that works for everyone. The one common thread in all intergenerational conversations I can see is that the generations are very different in how they perceive the world, including how they perceive the future.

I don’t think there are easy answers—perhaps no answers at all—to many of the big issues that confound us. I don’t believe that anyone has ‘the truth’ or that one perspective is more ‘right’ than another. My work is about helping people acknowledge their differences so those differences can be transcended or transformed, freeing and empowering everyone to collaborate and effectively coordinate action in a common cause. The fact that intergen conversations are now beginning to happen about working together is incredibly encouraging.

What I am focused on and what I think is useful to this emerging field is the principle of ‘disclosive space’. Each generation holds a different worldview or paradigm that ‘discloses’ to us literally different ‘worlds’. We can see that we not only bring to a dialogue different experiences and knowledge, but also vastly different ‘realities’. What is interesting is that innovations and breakthroughs occur when different disclosive spaces intersect—allowing us to observe anomalies that often point to opportunities that were previously not recognized or that were in our respective ‘blind spots’.

For example, the Internet was born out of the intersection between the military concern for secure communication, computer science and telecommunications. But the worldwide Web came into existence when the Internet intersected with a vision of a world linked through common language and technology. When the disclosive space of business and the Web met each other, it exploded into what we know today. While we can explain this progress or evolution in a lot of different ways, the point is that the various leaps in the story would never have occurred without the different worldviews or perspectives. If we want to accelerate and perhaps even master having intentional breakthroughs, it is important to appreciate the role of differences in creating original and ‘new’ possibilities.

Age has divided and separated the generations for most of human history. From a biological perspective, children are protected, nurtured and dominated by parents until they can biologically ‘fend for themselves’ and then they must ‘live their own lives’, which usually involves sidelining or ignoring their parents (and grandparents). The ‘old’ and the ‘young’ have rarely—if ever—approached the future in a context of collaboration and teamwork. The ‘young’ may have learned and assumed the practices of their elders, but what is appearing now is a different relationship to each other and to our circumstances. I think what is happening is that the divisive idea of being either older OR younger is being replaced by the recognition that everyone is growing older together—and from this we can see possibilities in viewing ourselves in a context of older AND younger.

Where this discourse will lead remains to be seen, but I am hopeful that it will lead us to a world in which getting older is something we can all look forward to and that we can continue to participate fully in all that life has to offer until the end. I imagine this also as world in which being younger isn’t a liability in terms of what we have to offer and the value of what we observe.  In other words, intergenerational dialogue may be the first step in creating a world that works for everyone.