The Decline of Intergenerational Communication

by Mark English

Prompted by some recent discussions on this site and elsewhere about generational divisions, I thought I would put together a few observations, personal thoughts and speculations on the general topic of intergenerational communication.

It’s well known that someone who grows up in a non-literate society is ‘wired’ very differently from someone who grows up with the written and printed word. Even their spoken language will be to some extent structurally different from the spoken language of a typical literate community.[1] More general social factors also come into play. The scope and perceived importance of privacy, for example, is generally far greater in literate societies.

Though it’s obvious that the invention of writing and the spread of literacy changed human cultural history quite dramatically, our understanding of the underlying psychology of these changes is incomplete. Nonetheless, we can reasonably assume that growing up in radically different linguistic and communicational environments produces radically different patterns of neuronal connections, and that these patterns affect behavior and have implications for interpersonal communication.

We are now in the midst of another such epochal change. Marshall McLuhan made much of the pre-digital electronic media, foreseeing a return to something approximating to a pre-literate world, a global village in which the image and the spoken word would again dominate. The digital revolution has accelerated some of these trends, but has also created whole new ecologies within which the printed word has been able to flourish (or at least proliferate).

McLuhan was right, I think, that we are very much inclined to be too narrowly focused on language and ‘content’ while ignoring the communicational significance of the broader (physical and social) dimensions of language use. The fact, for example, that the printed word has lost its prestige, its aura of authority, is hugely significant for the culture at large. It affects not just whether we read or what we read, but how we see other people, who we respect, who we trust. These sorts of perceptions (of value and authority, for instance) shape the way individuals relate to others.

Though this is a somewhat peripheral issue, it’s worth noting that perceptions of the hand-written word and its importance have also changed. There was a very funny party scene in an episode of Mad About You in which a stunning and brainy and professionally successful woman was trying to be self-deprecating and say that she had her flaws like everybody else, but when pressed to specify her weak areas she could only come up with penmanship. The humor, I think, derived not only from the fact that the quality of one’s handwriting is a trivial matter, but also from the perception that valuing handwriting is a very old-fashioned thing to do. There was a quaintness about the comment. Handwriting is emblematic of an earlier time – and we have moved on.[2]

But what I am particularly interested in here is the cumulative effect of all these subtle and not so subtle changes on the potential for deep and meaningful (if I can use this slightly clunky phrase) communication and understanding between individuals. The potential for this kind of communication is influenced to a significant degree (or so I am speculating) by broader aspects of the cultural environment, and not least those relating to technologies of language and communication.

It may be, of course, that the cynics who smile at the phrase are right and ‘deep and meaningful’ communication is not deep and meaningful at all, but something of an illusion. Even so, we have from time to time the very pleasant sense that something significant is being communicated; or, at the very least, a sense of being on the same wavelength as one’s interlocutor (or perhaps a writer or a filmmaker).

I was recently talking to a friend who was raised (as I was) in an informational world dominated by print media and television (and in which, by the way, more or less everybody could still write standard cursive script). He was claiming that when people like us encounter someone saying something we disagree with, we tend to question them, in order to figure out where they are coming from and/or try to refute them, whereas younger people are more likely to be dismissive and not engage at all. The classic line is: “I can’t believe you said that!”

Is there some truth in this observation? I’m not sure, but there has certainly been a lot of publicity lately concerning certain moral and social sensitivities and indications that these may be associated with a certain intellectual brittleness.

Characterizing these new patterns of behavior is always going to be contentious, but changes there have been; and they have coincided with the advent of digital technologies.

Have these technologies played a role in shaping the changes? Of course. Digital technologies have been tremendously disruptive of traditional patterns of authority, learning and communication, not only creating new ways for individuals to share ideas, etc. but also enabling new forms of grouping, assembly and identification.

There is also the psychological aspect. As I suggested above, it goes without saying that someone who spends a lot of time interacting with computers in his or her early years is going to have very different neuronal configurations etc. from someone whose early experiences (beyond the interpersonal) were predominantly with print-based materials. With the omnipresence, now, of computers and the merging of the digital and social spheres, you’re inevitably going to get a situation where younger people, on the whole, are going not just to think different things but to think and interact in very different ways from older people.

The details are up for grabs at the moment, but there are facts of the matter and research in various sciences is slowly revealing them.

I am not going jump the gun and claim that this or that subjectively desirable or undesirable psychological phenomenon or cultural trend is directly attributable to this or that type of exposure to or use of digital devices. A certain amount is known already, but most of the writing on these topics for a general audience is unhelpfully tendentious. In the writings of Susan Greenfield, for example, the scientific and the subjectively personal are often entangled.[3]

Precisely how all these changes will eventually play out we can’t be sure. And, of course, whether we judge the changes as good or bad depends on our individual value-systems which in turn are influenced and constrained (but not determined) by generational factors.

Those who were educated in a largely pen-and-paper and print-based world and as children were forced to sit quietly and concentrate for long periods in class or in church or school chapels, who read books and socialized largely in very small groups, within a context of school and family, are obviously going to have a different mindset from so-called digital natives.

The former were more deeply socialized into, and so dependent on, small, relatively stable and heterogeneous (certainly in terms of age) social networks than the latter, and so were forced to engage – more so than digital natives – with different age-groups in an ongoing person-to-person kind of way.

Children raised in pre-digital times were also more likely to feel a direct connection to traditional culture which, for all its faults, reserved a valuable space for the inner life: for stillness and patience and long consideration and (in the West at least) intellectual independence.

The cultural and intellectual tradition of the West – apart from the scientific revolution which it spawned – has played itself out. From my perspective at least, it’s finished. In a purely personal sense I continue to identify with it, and I love certain books and music and art-works and so on, but with fading conviction. What we are left with are scattered groups and individuals trying to connect as best they can. And, certainly, there is no longer any real sense of passing down a body of more or less culturally-specific lore to an indefinitely-extended future.

This is hardly a surprise if the lines of intergenerational communication have been disrupted. Not only does all cultural continuity depend on communication between the generations, the communication itself could be seen to be necessitated – and in a sense justified – by the imperative to transmit one’s culture into the future.

The logician and writer (as Lewis Carroll) of books for children, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, famously (and more or less innocently though I’m not so sure about the nude photographs, etc.) enjoyed the company of prepubescent girls, the daughters of his social circle. I certainly wouldn’t like his chances of organizing similar contacts today. The tragedy, however, is that opportunities for a whole range of perfectly ordinary (and proper) interactions between older and younger people are slowly but surely disappearing.

New technologies are playing a big role here. Apart from their influence on patterns of perception and cognition, etc., there is also the fact that digital media have produced a situation where information and entertainment is directly available and does not need to be sought so much from older people (parents, teachers, gentlemen logicians…). Everything you ever wanted to know about anything but were afraid to ask is now readily available, embarrassment-free, from documentary sources or from a hugely extended peer group; and we are drowning in entertainment options.

I’d like to think that the sort of deep intergenerational communication that used to be quite common will still be viable in the future, but I have serious doubts about this. It was a natural concomitant of certain informational dependencies and perceived cultural imperatives which arguably no longer apply.


  1. For example, the spoken language of a literate community will likely include subordinate clauses, whereas non-written languages often have coordination only.
  1. Handwriting compliments are often not compliments at all, as they constitute the faintest of faint praise. A journalist acquaintance of mine wrote a very fond (and revealing) obituary of her father in the course of which she referred to her mother once only – to praise her penmanship!
  1. Here is an account of her claims by a critical journalist (based on an interview with Greenfield).

60 thoughts on “The Decline of Intergenerational Communication

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  1. Mark English,

    I plead guilty of rhetorical flourish at the end of my comment.

    A full defense would require greater research (for I feel confidant that the facts will bear out my reflections on experience). Here i can provide. as well-acknowledged evidence, the history of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp shenanigans and political chicanery.

    As ‘character witness,’ I also submit this article by Robert Reich:

    (Arguably, the strategy actually dates back to Nixon’s development of a ‘Southern strategy,’ which is well known.

  2. Coincidentally, a post in OpEdNews today begins like this:
    “The real scourge of modern society is the effect of programming and algorithms on the structure of thought. To reduce reasoning to zeros and ones, yes or no, and black and white is to encourage perpetual ignorance and unforgiving idealism that has no compassion nor capability of distinguishing nuances that the real world encompasses.”

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