Identifying & Coping with Intergenerational & Collective Bias

by Kailani Akana Murphy, LCSW

“The boomer grandparent who doesn’t know how to operate email.” “The Gen X parent who tells their children that younger generations have no work ethic.” “The millennial child who can’t function without constant recognition.” “The zoomer who doesn’t know how to write a thank you card.”

Most of today’s family systems consist of a blend of four generations, and with that comes intergenerational and collective biases that affect our households and society as a whole. As a millennial with a cultural background that relies on generational living, I know that these biases can (and do) become more amplified during times of extreme stress like many of us experience today.

Intergenerational bias, also known as generational bias, is a kind of distorted thinking where people judge, act, decide, and make rules based on what they believe about different generations. This happens because each generation of people has their own unique experiences and history, which can lead to stereotypes or fixed ideas about them. Stereotypes are mental shortcuts we develop like quick, automatic thoughts, but sometimes they become unfair beliefs about a collective group. This can create a kind of shared bias where everyone in a group thinks the same way. A group’s shared bias can then become a hidden, automatic way of thinking based on what everyone already knows. When new information isn’t shared, it can cause long-term problems, like bad group decision making.

Intergenerational and collective biases affect everyone in most aspects of our lives: within the workplace, at the grocery store, and very often within the context of our families. Below are a list of ways to increase self-awareness as well as to promote healthy and productive communication, be that within your workplace, at family gatherings or throughout your everyday life:

Acknowledge that Intergenerational and Collective Bias exists

We often take defensive positions when faced with perceived threats – and that is not wrong or unhelpful, our brains are wired to be on the lookout for threats and use stereotyping to create shortcuts to protect ourselves based on past experience. However, this also perpetuates intergenerational and collective bias because we are not approaching interactions with other groups with curiosity and thus prevent unshared information from being provided. Acknowledging the biases that you hold and attempting to approach future interactions with curiosity can help to spark curiosity from those around you, and increase the dissemination of new or unfamiliar information.

Focus on collaboration

Many intergenerational and collective biases are rooted in the assumption of a lack of meaningful contribution potential from those outside of our own groups. For example, “if my siblings and I assume that our auntie doesn’t know how to send a group text to the family, then she’s less likely to want to help teach us how to make the butter mochi for dessert.” There is also a stereotype that diversity does not include age diversity, and that individuals in older generations are inherently less valuable as workers and collaborators. By intentionally approaching someone from a different generational cohort with the purpose of engaging in a discussion, the environment on the whole – be it the workplace or the dinner table – will become more conducive to positive connection and meaningful communication.

Be aware of Intention versus Impact

As I am often reminded by various family members from different generations, I know the idea of intention versus perception can often be conflated with the fixed idea that millennials need constant validation and that zoomers will misrepresent anything an older generation may say as harmful regardless of intent. And that does not lessen the importance of being aware of what we say and mean potentially impacting those around us in a way that is in direct conflict with our original intention. This is not unique to younger generations, and in order to best promote healthy communication and collaboration we need to be mindful and intentional with how we interact with others. Whether it is how we order our coffee or engage aunties and uncles in conversation across the dinner table, the awareness of our impact on those around us reflects as respect and will often be mirrored back to us.

While there is no one way to engage in conversations about biases and how to heal and cope, there are ways to start. Remember to give yourself permission to reset your own biases, create healthy expectations of yourself, and approach others with curiosity as you would like them to approach you.