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The young and the old; is there a generation gap?

Similarities and differences between younger and older generations.

How things were once different

Can you imagine that your grandchildren would address you in formal terms? Say “Mr,” or “Mrs”…? Today of course that would be very much the exception, but many years ago it was completely normal. And children were expected to listen quietly when their parents spoke, and no nonsense! The standard answer to the question, “Why?” was, “Because I say so!”

But in the 1960s came the protest generation, the “Hippies”, and they reacted to the strict upbringing they’d had. They found their parents’ generation dull, old-fashioned and stupid, and did their utmost to be nothing like them.

And nowadays it’s different. Everything’s a lot more easy-going, more relaxed. And parents don’t stand on their dignity so much nowadays, either. As a result, parents and children are closer to each other than ever before. They go on holiday together, go to concerts, and share each others joys and sorrows. Almost like best mates!
And here’s another difference from years ago; the younger generations, Generation Y and the Millenials, are taken much more seriously. Much less patronized. If they ask “Why?” there’s a rule, they usually get a proper answer.

What is “Generational Thinking”?

Generational Thinking is the idea that everyone can be identified with the generation they’re born in and that each generation bears some distinguishing feature. It’s the idea that every generation is different, has different values, and needs, and desires.

4 generations in order

They’re the golden generation; in their sixties now. The oldest of them have already retired and have done well out of life. Meanwhile the youngest of them are moaning that they’ve got to keep working!

Generation X
These are the Millenials; the MTV Generation. They’re between thirty and fifty now, have survived economic crises, experienced the Cold War and approach everything with a healthy dose of humour.

Generation Y
This generation are in their twenties, and their greatest ambition? “Be yourself!” They’re more aware than earlier generations about the environment, and they think the earlier generations have ruined it a bit.

Generation Z
Today’s teenagers; sometimes referred to as “digital natives”. They live with their smartphones in their hands and they believe happiness is a personal choice.

But… does it help to put people in pigeonholes based on their ages?

Or does that automatically lead to a generation gap? Trendwatcher Tom Palmaerts says “generational thinking is mostly a handy way of simplifying a number of changes that have happened, and to project them into the future”.

It’s noticeable that the generation gap doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with age. It’s more to do with attitude, whether someone’s keen to accept an open and multicultural society.

The striking similarities between young and old

This is why so many of the views of the Flemish Senior Citizens Council are the same as those of the Flemish Youth Council. Mies Moerenhout, former chair of the Senior Citizens Council says, “A few years ago we had some discussions about intergenerational solidarity, and we realised that our visions were very similar”.

5 ways young and old are very similar

1. Young people and older people have similar political opinions

In Belgium, most decisions are taken by the baby-boom generation. They dominate the political parties, unions and in fact everything in between. Young and old alike stand in stark contrast to them. Neither has much political power because they have so little representation, although that doesn’t mean they don’t suffer the consequences, including financially. And young and old alike find that unacceptable.

  • Gwneration Y is the first generation that are going to do worse than their parents. Most young people have qualifications, but are finding it hard to get jobs. Added to which is the fact that it has become difficult to buy a house without support. And older people too are feeling the financial pressure. Many are living on a small pension and are struggling with the cost of living––and of care.

2. Why the young and the old are the loneliest generations.

Research done by psychologists at the Universities of Cologne and Chicago has shown that loneliness isn’t something only older people experience but is equally likely to affect any age-group. And what’s noticeable is that the study found that loneliness hits a peak for twenty-somethings…

5 reasons why young people can be just as lonely as older people
  • The effect of having a job – or not
    On the one hand, people in a job feel less lonely than those out of work, and that’s because they have more social contact. On the other hand though, pressure of work can lead to social isolation.
  • Lonely Singles
    There are more and more people in Belgium who are single, and the two biggest groups of singles are the young and the old.
  • Large-scale change leads to loneliness.
    For young people that can mean suddenly having to go from student life to the world of work. From having a good time with your mates at uni. to going to work in a strange city. For older people that might mean the loss of a loved one.
  • Losing track of your friends.
    Young graduates are keen to build a career and start a family, and in doing so sometimes they lose track of friends and family. We see the same tendency to lose touch in older people.
  • Facebook as a substitute for real social contact
    Young people run the risk of allowing true friends to be replaced by superficial contact on social media. Then again, social media are a great way of meeting new people.

3. The effect on young and old of being single

The number of single people in Belgium continues to rise. In 2060 at least half of Flemish people will be single: in 2016 that figure was just 1 in 3. According to the sociologist Dimitri Mortelmans of Antwerp University that increase can be ascribed to the presence of two groups. Older people for one, and the “Sex and the City Generation” for another. The first of those groups is growing quicker, and as the population ages, more people are single late in life, whether that’s unmarried, or widows and widowers. The other group are young, happy, and enjoy the exciting city-life.

Life costs more for singles
  • Singles have a hard time financially. Their costs are the same as for couples, but they have to bear them alone. Even buying a house costs more if you’re single, because just as an example property tax is levied per property, not per person. Meanwhile the taxman thinks, however unfairly, that couples should get two mortgage deductions. Fiscally speaking, singles are rather “the forgotten tribe”…
  • But there are good signs; initiatives are on the way; so Mechelen for example is giving singles a one-off tax relief on refuse.
The power of networking
  • Older folk are keen to stay living at home for as long as possible, but young people are keen to fly the nest. What it comes down to is that both groups want to be able to stand on their own two feet, although that’s not always obvious. Fortunately they can find support from their networks.
  • For young people that means having house-mates, because that makes it affordable to live independently. For older people it means a safety net of family, home-carers, meals-on-wheels and so on.

4. Creativity; a bond between young and old

In the course of their lives, older people are pushed to the edge of society. And that’s unfair, because we can still learn an awful lot from them. Think of things like altering clothes, growing vegetables, learning how you make jam. And the young are the very people who are aware of it.

More and more of them are changing course and going back to the old days and ways. They’re doing sewing courses, baking their own bread and going to local shop-keepers for good honest produce.

There was an initiative in the Netherlands called “New/Old”. It’s a project to connect young and old, with the aim of “retrieving the knowledge of the old days”. One of the inspirational ideas was by a graphic designer who worked with an older lady to create a manual for older people on “how to survive the first few days in a care home”. Maybe that’s a nice idea for Belgium?

5. Why young and old are closer than ever

Once upon a time, anyone over 60 just seemed…old! But nowadays young people are best friends with their parents. More and more parents are enjoying a really warm relationship with their children and grandchildren, and even with their children’s friends.

There’s room now for open and respectful discussion––from both sides. And we’ve got a different kind of upbringing to thank for that, with more––and more open communication.

Here’s how young and old can learn from each other

So perhaps there’s no Generation Gap any more; but there certainly is a “Digital Gap”. Older people do their best, but unlike the “digital natives” it’s hard for them to keep up with all the constant changes.

Digital is the new normal

The older generation are fortunate that they can rely on the younger generation to answer questions like, “How does this “internet” acutally work…?” Young people are always happy to explain it to them!

Want to read more about why older folk aren’t online?


Generational thinking is maybe an easy way of pigeonholing people. But really the generation gap isn’t about age, because a lot of older people still feel young at heart. It’s about how much zest for life you’ve got, and if you’re open to a multicultural society. Old and young have lots to teach each other, in many areas.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young”.
Henry Ford (1863 – 1947)

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