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Generational Diversity, Part 1: Being Savvy

Have you recently experienced a “generational gap” when interacting with someone younger or older? Often times, life experiences and frame of reference can be noticeably different with as few as a 15 or 20 year difference in age. Generation gaps often lead to feelings of disconnect, discomfort, and frustration. For those of us who regularly interact with older adults, having a better understanding of what makes a person ‘tick’ can change the course of a conversation andthe outcome of a situation.

As health care and social services professionals, we understand that individual perceptions are shaped by history and personal experiences. For professionals working with older adults,recognizing and respecting generational influences may strengthen:

  1. Appreciation for the uniqueness of members of different generations.
  2. Understanding of own and other’s values, beliefs, and attitudes.
  3. Working relationships with older adults.

The table below includes a brief overview of certain influences that shaped people’s lives and generalized characteristics that have been broadly applied over time in the literature: 1,2

Generation Time Frame Traditionalists
(a.k.a. ‘Matures’)
Generation Xers 1965-1980 Millennials
History/Social Influences
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • The New Deal
  • Social Security
  • Atom Bomb
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Economic Prosperity
  • Vietnam
  • Assassinations
  • International Terrorism
  • End of Cold War
  • AIDS & Violence
  • 24 Hr. Media
  • Iraq War
  • Violence close to home
  • World Wide Web
  • Gangs, Drug Wars
Values, Traits and selected Characteristics
  • Respect Authority, Paternalism
  • Silent Generation
  • Conformists
  • Question Authority
  • Idealistic
  • Involvement and Partnering
  • ‘Self Command’
  • Skeptical
  • Independent
  • Informality
  • Collaborative
  • Realistic
  • Media Savvy
  • Social

Being generationally savvy reduces the risk of a ‘one size fits all’ approach when interacting with and serving older adults. Viewing older adults as a homogenous group, as opposed to unique individuals, is dangerous and may cause harm through misunderstanding, and perhaps, lead to misdiagnosis of need.


Savvy entails being…
Well informed and perceptive; having practical know-how and using common sense.3

For example, a lack of “savvy” and age sensitivity may lead a well-intended service provider to perceive that a “traditionalist”, who values paternalism, is in complete agreement with what a provider has said because the senior does not question the provider’s authority as it may seem disrespectful. Likewise, a “boomer”, who values being involved in decision making, may be turned off by paternalistic approach and choose to discontinue needed treatment at his/her own peril. To improve interactions, generational values, beliefs, and attitudes need to be understood, considered and respected.

A savvy member of any one of the four generations currently working with older adults understands that generation gaps are not the problem. In fact, a “savvy” person understands that age diversity adds richness to society and applies generational knowledge to shape his or her practice approaches to better meet the unique needs of older clients/patients. Health care and service professionals who are generationally sensitive agree that: 

  • Knowledge and understanding of the aging process is critical in safeguarding and protecting older adults.
  • Helping older adults make informed decisions is best achieved on a case-by-case basis where an individual’s wishes and needs are respected.

We share the following ‘savvy’ mnemonic for use in working with older adults:

  • Sense that differences between generations affect interactions, well-being and safety
  • Ask the ‘expert’, the older adult, and don’t assume or rely on stereotypes
  • Value the influences and characteristics that have uniquely shaped each older person
  • Validate that the words used and the understanding of the interaction is shared
  • Your consistent advocacy is needed. Education on aging and age-related issues for those working with older adults enhances their safety and epitomizes the principle, ‘do no harm’ as ignorance is often the cause of injury. Savvy?



1. Baumgardner, C. (2008). Beyond Patient Satisfaction . . What lies ahead?  

2. Hosbach, V. (2008). Presentation on Generational Diversity given at the College of Nursing.

3. Definition of savvy. Available online July 30, 2009 @

GERO GEMS is a monthly publication of the Center for Aging with Dignity. Compiled by Evelyn Fitzwater, this publication is designed to raise awareness of aging and related issues impacting health care professionals and our society as a whole.

For more information:

Go to the Senior Health health topic.