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The Generation Gap

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #34 (May 1979)

Among the more common truisms I’m sure nearly everyone encounters in his or her daily life are such statements as: “The younger generation has become soft” or “Older people are too set in their ways.” There are naturally many variations on these themes, but they all reflect deep-seated and seemingly perennial discord between the “generations.” As a student at the University of California at Berkeley in 1968-69, I witnessed first-hand the ugly consequences of the dramatization of these inter-generational prejudices. The almost total lack of communication skills exhibited by both the “establishment” and student demonstrators during that turbulent period was indeed something to behold.

I would like to take a moment to probe underneath the surface of utterences such as the above in an effort to discover what meaning they contain and what presuppositions they imply. To assist in this inquiry I will employ some tools borrowed from the field of linguistics. Consider for example, the first statement cited in the above paragraph: “The younger generation has become soft.” It should be immediately obvious that this sentence has the form of a generalization. That is to say, it is a statement about a group or class which purports to describe some characteristic common to all or the majority of its members. Generalizations themselves when skillfully applied can be invaluable tools, and indeed, mathematics and the sciences could never have been developed without their use. But, in order for a generalization to be useful, its scope of reference, i.e., the characteristics of the group or class in question must be well-defined. However, seldom is such rigor applied to daily speech. In this instance, the phrase “younger generation” lacks what can be called a “referential index,” i.e., we don’t know who specifically is referred to. Who constitutes the younger generation? Young people from the ages of 10 through 25? From 15 to 35? Perhaps the speaker has in mind a single young person or a relatively small group of people, or is commenting on a single behavioral pattern which he or she finds distasteful. Also, when or under what circumstances does an individual cease to be a member of this nebulous group? Parenthetically, it is revealing to note that many of the rebellious students of the 60’s era have become assimilated into the “establishment” or, at the very least, have found less dramatic forms of voicing their disapproval of the actions of the powers that be.

Another deficiency, perhaps not as obvious, of this statement is that it contains the deletion of certain other information which is vital to our understanding of the speaker’s meaning. The remark, “The younger generation has become soft,”necessarily implies a comparison, that is, “soft” with regard to whom? In the absence of clarification from the speaker, we c a n only guess as to the identity of the other term of this comparison. One possibility might be, “Today’s younger generation is softer than today’s older generation.” Or perhaps, “Today ’ s younger generation is softer than today’s older generation was when it was young.” From personal experience, I would question whether or not the speaker actually realizes on a conscious level what he or she means by this sort of statement. Similar difficulties arise if we attempt to discover what is meant by the term “soft.” Do we mean “lacking in discipline,” “enjoying excessive material comforts,” “too dependent on their parents,” etc?

Viewed from a psychological perspective, this statement presupposes a reality partitioned according to a simplistic, binary model, i.e., ” a world consisting of an experienced older generation frustrated by the attitudes and actions of a non-productive younger generation.”

A parallel analysis can be made of the statement “Older people are too set in their ways.” Namely, what group is designated by the label “older generation.” “Too set” in their ways” relative to whom? Precisely what is meant by the phrase “too set,” and so forth.

I would invite readers to try the following experiment. The next time you find yourself engaged in a conversation with an appropriate partner, listen carefully to what that person is saying. When you hear a statement whose meaning is not clear to you, ask your interlocutor to clarify his/her meaning. Having done this, observe your partner’s reaction. Does the person willingly attempt to clarify his/her meaning? Is there a shift in voice tonality which suggests discomfort? Did you yourself feel comfortable stopping the speaker to ask for clarification? It might be prudent to first attempt this experiment with a good friend. I believe you’ll find that such a practice as this, if occuring with any frequency, will elicit a hostile reaction. Indeed, it is obvious that extensive use of this approach would quickly lead to a total breakdown in communications. Nonetheless, we are still left with the original problem: few users of natural language tools consciously attempt to minimize ambiguities in their speech.

It is not difficult to see how failure to communicate one’s meaning accurate and tactfully can lead to social tension.and conflict. Conversely, one of the central goals of our Aikido training is to reach a level of maturity where we function as instruments of harmony in the respective societies where we live and work. Thus, any efforts we make as individuals to apply our knowledge of interpersonal dynamics gained through Aikido practice to our social dealings will in no small measure contribute to the realization of that goal.