What Is a Generation Gap?

A generation gap refers to the chasm that separates the beliefs and behaviors belonging to members of two different generations. More specifically, a generation gap can be used to describe the differences in thoughts, actions, and tastes exhibited by members of younger generations versus older ones.

The differences may be in politics, values, and pop culture and other areas. While generation gaps have been prevalent throughout all periods of history, the breadth of differences of these gaps has widened in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Key Takeaways

  • A generation gap is defined as the different thoughts and worldviews held by different generational cohorts.
  • The generation gap between individuals can be used to explain differences in the worldviews and actions observed among those of different age groups.
  • The current living generations are the Greatest Generation, the silent generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z.
  • Businesses often aim to understand the different characteristics of each generation to better create and market their products and services.
  • Employers seek to reduce the generational gap within the workplace by employing a variety of techniques.

Understanding Generation Gaps

Generation gaps play big roles at businesses. This is because in order to sell to different groups companies must find ways to balance the needs and views of individuals from those groups. Businesses must be aware of the changing demographics and genders of their client base, which can affect their business cycles and bottom lines.

The term "generation gap" was first used in the 1960s. During that time, the baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, were growing apart from their parents in their beliefs and opinions.

Sociologists use nomenclature to refer to different generational segments. For example, members of Gen Z, born between 1996 and 2012, are called “digital natives” because they have lived with digital technology their entire lives.

By contrast, older generational members are termed “digital immigrants” and tend to be less comfortable with the personal usage of technologies. Consequently, technology companies market products differently to each age group.

Generational segments go by other handles: the greatest generation is also known as "radio babies"; the silent generation has also been called "traditionalists." Baby boomers are also known as the “me” generation.

How Generations Are Distinguished

The current living generations have been divided into the following six major groups:

  1. Greatest generation
  2. Silent generation
  3. Baby boomers
  4. Generation X
  5. Millennials
  6. Generation Z

Each generation has its own characteristics regarding vernacular, technological influences, workplace attitudes, general consciousness, and ways of life.

Greatest generation

As Great Depression and World War II survivors, they were instrumental in shaping the United States into an economic and military power. This group is defined by patriotism, teamwork, and drive. They were born from 1901 to 1927.

Silent generation

Born 1928 to 1945, older members of the silent generation fought in Korea, while younger ones danced to Elvis and early rock 'n' roll, formed the leadership of the civil rights movement, and were the New Frontier generation of President Kennedy. More traditional and rules-following than the baby boomers, they are also called the traditionalist generation, although that may be a misnomer for this group.

Baby boomers

They witnessed increasing social and economic equality and came of age as the country was split by differing views on politics, war, and social justice. The boomers participated in some of the greatest social changes in the country’s history, during the 1960s and 1970s, with the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement.

Generation X

Born between 1965 and 1980, Gen-Xers grew up with emerging technologies and political and institutional incompetence. They witnessed Watergate, Three Mile Island, and the Iranian hostage crisis. But they also observed major technological advancements. Mimeograph machines evolved into high-speed copiers, and fax machines gave way to email. Heavy adding machines were replaced by handheld calculators, and computers shrank in size and processing speed.

Millennials

Born between 1981 and 1996, millennials have always known cable TV, pagers, answering machines, laptop computers, and video games. Technological advancements in real-time media and communication have driven their expectation for immediacy. They are the generation that bridges the gap of growing up in a world before and after the Internet.

They have also seen untold tragedy in their youth, with events like the Columbine High School shootings of 1999 and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Millennials were hit hard by the 2008 Great Recession, hurting the long-term outlook of their finances.

Those born on the edge of the Gen-X and Millennials are sometimes referred to as X-ennials

Generation Z

Generation Z is the generation after the millennials, born between 1996 and 2012. This generation consists of individuals in young adulthood, teenagers, and children. This is the first generation that grew up with the Internet as a fact of life, not knowing a world without email, immediate access to information, or mobile phones.

The cohorts of Gen Z are more likely to be the children of immigrants than millennials are: 22% versus 14%, respectively.

Generation Z was expected to do well financially, coming of age in a strong economy. The economic crisis of 2020 upended that stability and what comes next is still to be determined. This generation is racially and ethnically diverse and is similar to millennials in terms of its social and policy beliefs. Both generations are progressive and believe in social equality and the importance of climate change.

Special Considerations

Understanding the different generations is critical for businesses to know who they should market to and how. The first step is understanding the product or service offered by your business and who its target audience is. From there, learning the best way to market to them, without involving stereotypes, is an important step to success.

Businesses must stay true to their identity. If a company is not perceived as hip or young, then using hip or young lingo to market to Generation Z, for example, will be seen as inauthentic and may backfire.

Millennials and baby boomers are the largest generations. Baby boomers are also the wealthiest while millennials are reaching middle age and will have more wealth to spend. Understanding these types of characteristics of a generation will help in marketing. Also, knowing what these generations need at a certain point will help.

For example, baby boomers are nearing retirement or are retired, so aspects of retirement in marketing a product may be helpful. Millennials are fairly young, in their mid-twenties to forties, so addressing topics such as buying a house or first car or starting a family may appeal to them.

In addition, a business needs to know where to market. Baby boomers grew up in an age without smartphones or the Internet. Though many are tech-savvy, many also still read physical newspapers and watch cable TV. If you are marketing to baby boomers, that might be an area to consider.

On the other hand, Generation Z grew up with smartphones and tablets in hand, so marketing digitally to them would be the smart move.

Generation Gap FAQs

What Is Generation Gap?

A generation gap is the thoughts, beliefs, and ideologies that separate one generation from the next. These can encompass beliefs on politics, business, race, and pop culture.

What Causes Generational Gaps?

Generational gaps are simply caused by age and the situation of the world at the time one generation has grown up. For example, the beliefs and perceptions of those who grew up during World War II may be different from those who grew up in the 1960s—though to be sure, similarities will remain.

What Are the Generation Gaps Called?

Some of the different generation gaps are the traditionalists, the baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z.

Is the Generation Gap No Longer a Gap?

There are many studies conducted on this topic. There will always be different generations, simply because people are born at different times. Similarly, the world and society are always changing, which will inadvertently change the perception of individuals depending on the period they grew up in. Studies do also show that the differences in generational gaps are minimal. Individual differences also play a role, as do socio-economic factors.

How Can We Bridge the Generation Gap?

There are ways to bridge the generational gap in certain situations in the workplace. Encouraging multi-generational teamwork is one tactic. Creating clear cultural values, such as highlighting the importance of the quality of the work rather than where the work is done (office versus remotely), is another. Incorporating many communication channels that work for all individuals, organizing mentorship programs, and emphasizing respect above all else are also useful tools.

The Bottom Line

A generation gap consists of the differing beliefs on politics, religion, society, pop culture, that exist between different generations. These beliefs are shaped by the state of the world in which the individuals belonging to each generation grew up.

Businesses often try to understand the different generations so that they can create and market products successfully. Businesses also try and understand these differences to close the generation gap among employees, hopefully building cohesive and efficient workplace.