The Silence of Intergenerational Communication

by Graham Rawlings

We are Elders and, as such, we are categorized either as Baby Boomers (52 -70) or Pre-Baby Boomers (70 – ??). We are not Millenials or Generation Y (19 – 35) or post- Millenials or Generation X (35 – 52) unless we are flying under false colours. Pre-Baby Boomers are also referred to as the Silent Generation in some quarters. What does this say about communications between generations?

I recently carried out some research on this in the False Creek district of Vancouver, British Columbia, over several weeks. This being my neck-of-the-woods it seemed an appropriate place to endeavour to see how people of different ages relate to each other, or not, as the case may be.

The start of my study happens to be a wonderful Spring morning with a 120 freshness in the air. I am taking my constitutional along the sea wall to Granville Island Market, ready to pass the time of day with all and sundry but especially with Generation Y.

The snow-capped hills provide a scenic backdrop and the sun is glinting on the ripples in the water. The rhododendrons are in bloom. There are many birds around, the seagulls are wheeling above, ducks are on the water, chicks already growing up. Canada geese are strutting around, and chickadees are chirping in the bushes. There are no eagles to be seen at the moment but I know that if I walk to the west I would likely see at least one standing as a sentinel above its ragged nest near the empty coastguard station which, thanks to our new progressive federal government, is in the process of being reopened.

I know that I am old(ish) and don’t regularly carry a charged cell phone, and I don’t have a dog any longer (regrettably), so who might I share a conversation with this morning? There are likely looking folks of the right generation seen from a distance walking towards me, but as they get closer I see that they have plugs in their ears and their concentration is elsewhere. No chatting with me there!

But the market is a different scene as the stalls unfurl prior to opening time. The fruit and vegetable stalls are having their covers taken off, the bagels are set ready to be baked, and the soaps and lotions are being unwrapped. Maybe it is a little too early for the delicatessens and butchers to display their wares.

A delightful conversation with the two assistants at the bakers buoys my spirits as I buy their excellent and wonderfully smelling breads. It is always good to wander around the market at this time when customers are few. The aroma of coffee compels me to get my first fix of the day.

Maybe I shall be luckier with communications on my return trip along the seawall. The girl controlling the traffic under the Granville Bridge where the seismic retrofit construction is being undertaken is less interested in seeing what is falling from above or helping me cross the road than in checking her cell phone. So much for liability issues! By the time that I return home along the seawall it is time for the speed-cyclists, either rushing to work or being hell-bent on getting their morning exercise. Joggers are few but those demonstrate quite a wide range of fitness levels. Alas, no chance of striking up conversation with any of these single-minded enthusiasts. Some might even be Generation X baby boomers so I need to be careful in drawing conclusions.

Fast forward to another day of research. Today is a lucky day! I am taking my friend’s golden retriever to the UBC Endowment Lands, welcome exercise for us both. The demographics are different in comparison with the seawall. The new neighbourhoods that have been developed on the large UBC campus have resulted in an influx of immigrants drawn to the proximity of good schools and the University. In the woods Logan is my great help. Many people, mostly those with dogs, smile and even chat. This is so different by comparison with the times when I am walking in the woods on my own. Then I am regarded as suspicious – even without a raincoat! There was a murder here several years ago which has never been solved so maybe it is all understandable! Nevertheless the braver souls consider that the peace and freshness of the woods make the risk of interaction and conversation worthwhile. I deduce that many of these friendly folk are actually pre-baby boomers and maybe should not be really be called the ‘silent generation’.

Most recently, in the absence of real communication  and to assuage my pre-baby boomer loneliness, I have become an eavesdropper, a habit which troubled my late wife. My interest is not intrusive or invasive but merely a gathering of snatches of conversation on the hoof, so to speak. People of interest are not those egotists who deliberately invite you and all others around into their cell phone conversations. We all know them. I like the odd phrases that I hear, the unusual accents and cultures caught as people pass by that send me off on flights of fancy. Many are happy, some are sad, often coloured by the sun or dampened by the rain. The flights are influenced by the body language too. Hand-seeking-hand or even the surreptitious kiss. I can the weave a story round them – probably far from the truth but nonetheless interesting – to fulfil my conversational needs  in the absence of communication as they pass off into the distance.

Does my research show that I am personally out of step with Generation Y? Is our whole generation of Elders really like ghostly ships that pass in the night and are out of touch with the younger generations of X, Y and boomers?.

Obviously if I am to communicate effectively I should get a smart phone (or recharge my old one!) to make sure that I can share my morning thoughts in the way that the Xs and Ys now seem to. Despite that, I will still keep smiling in the hope of some real (traditional?) pre-baby boomer conversation along the way with whichever generation wishes to communicate with me. My cell phone number is available by request.



  1. On the cusp of boomer and pre-boomer, I moved to Fairview Slopes above False Creek in the early 80’s and routinely walked the seawall to Granville Island market and back. I remember that my interest was drawn to nature – Canada geese, song birds, gulls, rats, and once at night after a rare snow storm, a pair of sea otters sliding over the snow into the creek, running up again, and sliding back down. There were no cell phones, so people talked to the ones they were walking with, and singles avoided talking at all. Not so different, maybe, although I wonder if the generations that came after us are missing out on those silent conversations that we had with ourselves, with no one listening. Thank you for sharing your conversations.

  2. Very nice. But maybe you should do what a certain mother-in-law of mine does — in the presence of strangers, just blab away!

  3. Lovely Graham. I’ll phone when you’re within speaking distance and your phone is charged….

  4. Thanks Graham. In the Lower Mainland, interpersonal communication is hampered by cultural, language, and class differences. We are virtually all from somewhere else. As a Yanko-Canadian progressive, I feel at home at the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, which includes many dual citizens, including our minister.
    On Sunday mornings, I’ve noticed that we have difficulty attracting Chinese immigrant people, although our church is in a largely Chinese neighbourhood. I think anyone with English as a second language would have trouble with our hymns and sermons.
    However, on Sunday afternoons, the church is abuzz with Chinese dialects as various classical music recitals happen almost every week.
    Intergenerationally, we have made significant progress engaging each other. This is partly through two generational families, but also through intentional power and facility sharing. Our board has included one or more youth (post high school) for ten years, Messy Church happens Friday evenings (activities like deconstructing machines plus pizza), Youth parties (raves?) and OWL (Our Whole Lives) training: e.g. advanced sex ed. happens for different age kids throughout the year. Climate change activists cross many generations, which is encouraging.
    My point is that communication is automatic when something meaningful is shared over a long time. Usually that will be under a roof, where intergenerational stereotypes can be challenged.

    1. Thank you Karl for your insightful comments. I agree that the gap between the generations can be bridged in an intentional way but that does require vision and organizations. The churches can do this within the limitations of language, culture and even doctrine, and of course money. Secular organizations such as Suzuki Elders work hard to create a dialogue between the generations. I do think though that bridging the cultural gap is very different from bridging the generation gap when seniors are in effect invisible to younger folk.
      I would argue for a more subtle approach; smiling and a word of thanks can achieve a lot.

      The Henri Amiel prayer (1868) says it all: “Life is short
      We do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us
      So be quick to love, make haste to be kind”

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