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What I’m Thankful For: Learning Across Generations

A new Brennan Center report explores the value of civic intergenerationality.

November 22, 2021
Multigenerational family sharing a meal
FG Trade/Sonya_illustration/Getty

In a bit of polit­ical irony befit­ting the times, the very thing that makes it possible for famil­ies to gather safely in person this Thanks­giv­ing — the COVID-19 vaccine — may be the source of the most conten­tious dinner table conver­sa­tions.

Public health meas­ures concern­ing the coronavirus have become highly politi­cized. Trump voters are ten times as likely as Biden voters to reject the vaccine. And more than 70 percent of Biden voters say they do not respect those who choose to be unvac­cin­ated. Stir in crit­ical race theory, abor­tion laws, and voting rights, and you have the recipe for an unusu­ally bitter Thanks­giv­ing dinner. 

But it does­n’t have to be.

A new paper from the Bren­nan Center shows that intergen­er­a­tional inter­ac­tions — like those that occur during holi­day gath­er­ings — present an oppor­tun­ity for the type of engage­ment and delib­er­a­tion neces­sary to temper the polit­ical polar­iz­a­tion presently roil­ing the nation. It intro­duces the concept of civic intergen­er­a­tion­al­ity, a product­ive exchange of civic know­ledge and exper­i­ences between members of differ­ent gener­a­tions. 

Too often, gener­a­tional differ­ences are seen as sources of conflict, espe­cially in gath­er­ings of exten­ded family. Each Thanks­giv­ing, for example, report­ers serve up tips on how to fight with your family about polit­ics. This rein­forces an unfor­tu­nate conver­sa­tional dynamic: older adults perceive youth as naïve and presump­tu­ous, while younger family members feel dismissed and discoun­ted. Each gener­a­tion cari­ca­tures the others, and the inher­ent power imbal­ances between older and younger indi­vidu­als distort their conver­sa­tions. 

Instead, intergen­er­a­tional civic learn­ing demon­strates that dialogue across gener­a­tional lines can develop valu­able civic skills such as product­ive commu­nic­a­tion, mutual respect, and confid­ence exer­cising one’s agency. It encour­ages trickle-up learn­ing, wherein younger people assume the role of educator and facil­it­ate adult civic learn­ing that creates a more informed and engaged citizenry. The theory builds on decades of schol­ar­ship show­ing that there is civic value in indi­vidu­als’ every­day talk.

These compet­en­cies are partic­u­larly needed during Thanks­giv­ing. A 2018 study found that bipar­tisan Thanks­giv­ing gath­er­ings were 30 to 50 minutes shorter than those where attendees were of the same party, result­ing in a nation­wide loss of about 34 million hours of dialogue due to hyper-partis­an­ship. 

Moreover, intense debates are rarely about the details of specific public policy issues. Rather, dinner table polit­ical discus­sions are prox­ies for one’s iden­tity and feel­ings, thereby caus­ing policy differ­ences to be perceived as personal attacks that lead to animus. Suddenly, discus­sions about climate change, immig­ra­tion, or racial justice are perceived to be whole­sale attacks on parti­cipants’ char­ac­ter and beliefs. As the conver­sa­tions escal­ate into argu­ments, indi­vidu­als exit the dialogue, avoid further talks, and squander the oppor­tun­ity for civic learn­ing. 

Accord­ing to the Bren­nan Center’s research, in order for the nation to lever­age the bene­fits of civic intergen­er­a­tion­al­ity, we must under­stand a few factors at play when gener­a­tions engage. The first is adult­ism, or the recog­ni­tion that older gener­a­tions typic­ally hold more power in soci­et­ies. Learn­ing across gener­a­tional lines requires power-shar­ing that chal­lenges the typical state of rela­tion­ships. The second is inten­tion­al­ity, which means that parti­cipants must enter conver­sa­tions with compas­sion and a desire to engage rather than with a mind­set to win the argu­ment. And third, loca­tion matters. That is, civic intergen­er­a­tion­al­ity differs depend­ing on where it occurs, whether within homes, schools, churches, or community organ­iz­a­tions. 

Part of the reason for the toxic polar­iz­a­tion in our polit­ics today is the lack of good faith engage­ment across the ideo­lo­gical spec­trum. Polls continue to show that partis­ans consider each other to be threats to the nation and conceive of polit­ical debates as exist­en­tial battles to be won at all costs. Not only is this a product of decreas­ing social contact across polit­ical divides, but it’s also a result of indi­vidu­als over­es­tim­at­ing the differ­ences between them­selves and others. 

Civic intergen­er­a­tion­al­ity provides a path­way to work ourselves out of this quandary. Because these inter­ac­tions often occur where trust between the parti­cipants is already estab­lished, it can be partic­u­larly resi­li­ent to divis­ive appeals. While not a silver bullet solu­tion to our civic crisis, it can be instru­mental to strength­en­ing our demo­cracy.

And, import­antly, it can keep Thanks­giv­ing argu­ments to more mundane things, like the merits of canned cran­berry sauce or whether turkey is respons­ible for the inev­it­able after­noon naps.