Bridging the Generational Divide: How to Find Your Identity in an Ever Changing World

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As the worldviews and values imprinted during our formative years are strained by an ever changing world, it’s easy to feel lost and not know how to find your identity.  

    Our own beliefs about what it means to grow older play a big role in the way we approach the transitions of the second half of life.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

Ultimately, these core beliefs about ourselves and the world serve as a scaffolding for finding meaning in the second half of life. And just like any structure—whether physical or mental—it may be strong and resilient to stress, or shaky and vulnerable.

According to geriatric researcher and therapist, Dr. Ken Laidlaw, and his colleagues, there are basically 5 unique forces that shape our core beliefs as we get older.

Here’s a description of these forces and how each can be a boon or a barrier to you in finding your identity in an ever changing world.

1. Generational Beliefs

Each of us grew up with values and attitudes that were uniquely embedded within a particular time and place. Someone who grew up during the ‘Great Depression’ in 1930’s America, for example, might come to embrace frugality as a fundamental part of his or her self-identity.

Likewise, many ‘Baby Boomers’ (born between 1946-1964) developed a deep-rooted suspicion of large institutions and big government after the Vietnam War. And for ‘Gen-Xers’(born between 1965-1984) who grew up in a time when divorce rates were high, values like family and work-life balance are likely to rank as highly important.

These generational beliefs and values are often benign and only become problematic when they’re rigidly clung to or clouded with pervasive negativity. Older people brought up in times of sacrifice and self-reliance, for example, may believe that no matter how much pain they’re in, they should simply ‘Grin and bear it’ and ‘Not make a fuss,’ making it harder to ask for help in times of genuine need.

No matter your age, if you have a tendency to think in rigid or negative ways, there are a number of simple strategies for dialing back ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking and other common thinking traps.

READ RELATED: Free Yourself from the 4 Most Common Thinking Traps

2. Intergenerational Connection

As we accumulate life experiences, it’s natural to want to share the skills and wisdom we’ve accumulated with the fresh faces of tomorrow. When older and younger people are able to bridge the generation gap and connect in meaningful ways, anything is possible. But nothing truly important is easy

Communicating with someone of a different generation can be a bit like talking with someone from another culture. A lot can get lost in translation, and when conflicts inevitably arise, it can be a source of great stress and angst in an older person’s life.    

Conflicts between adult children and their older parents often center on differences in beliefs about religion, politics, lifestyle issues, and the best way to raise children. And at their core, these conflicts often represent a clash of generational beliefs, all of which play out in real-time as society and cultural norms wax and wane.

If you find yourself in such a generational conflict, it can be helpful to do some work on clarifying your values and finding ways to express them in fresh ways that are less likely to trigger the same old tired conflicts.

READ RELATED: Why Do We Keep Having the Same Fight? Breaking Out of Toxic Communication Cycles

3. Role Transitions

As we get older, our roles in life inevitably change. These transitions might be anticipated, like becoming empty-nesters or retiring. But others may represent unexpected or unwelcome change, like getting divorced later in life or developing a chronic illness.       

For the most part, older people tend to be fairly resilient (from a psychological perspective) even in the face of significant change. But these difficult life transitions can still put a strain on our sense of self, as we’re propelled into a world that forces us to reinvent ourselves and step out of familiar comfort zones.       

If you’re having trouble coping with a recent change in your life, see if there are creative ways you can harness the flexibility of your mind and integrate these difficult events into your life story, preferably in a way that ultimately allows for a purposeful and hopeful path forward.    

READ RELATED: You Are the Author of Your Own Life Story: 3 Ways of ‘Re-storying’ the Most Stressful Events in Life

4. Physical Health

With age comes increased risk for a number of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and dementia. And there is a significant sense of loss that can occur with such changes in health. People often grieve the loss of having full mobility or the loss of a planned future that is perhaps now less clear.   

Even if someone is generally in good health, the existential threat of these health problems weighs on us as we get older. Conversations in one’s social circle begin to center on doctor visits and new medications. And eventually, we begin to say goodbye to the ones we love.

If you’re having difficulty saying goodbye, it can help to write about it. And there are structured writing exercises that have been shown to help people to find meaning in the wake of loss.      ‘

READ RELATED: What if My Grief Doesn’t Fit into Five Stages? 5 Tips for Finding Meaning after Loss

5. Beliefs about Aging

Our own beliefs about what it means to grow older play a big role in the way we approach the transitions of the second half of life. For some older adults, restrictive and ageist views are internalized—like “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “Old people have terrible memory”—which can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy and subtly undermine confidence in one’s own abilities.  

If you find that your negative self-talk is your own worst enemy, look for ways to build greater self-compassion and keep your inner critic in check.

READ RELATED: How to Stop Negative Self Talk and Tame Your Critical Inner Voice in 5 Steps

Expanding on these topics, this week we explore the unique aspects of finding meaning in the second half of life.

Tuesday’s essay explores how to make the most of life and express what’s really important to the ones you love.

Then on Wednesday you can take the quiz and find out to what extent you’ve made sense of the most difficult transitions in your life.

On Thursday, we take a look at the benefits of volunteer work in the second half of life and discuss potential pitfalls to volunteering and ways to overcome them.

We then end the week on Friday with an essay on anxiety about illness and death and how it plays out across different stages of life. 

So come back every day this week for more on finding meaning in the second half of life. And in the comments below, tell us what growing older has taught you about the meaning of life.        


Further Reading:












Bonanno, G. A., Wortman, C. B., & Nesse, R. M. (2004). Prospective patterns of resilience and maladjustment during widowhood. Psychology and Aging, 19, 260-271.

Clarke, E. J., Preston, M., Raksin, J., & Bengtson, V. L. (1999). Types of conflicts and tensions between older parents and adult children. The Gerontologist, 39, 261-270.

Holland, J. M., Graves, S., Klingspon, K. L., & Rozalski, V. (2016). Prolonged grief symptoms related to loss of physical functioning: examining unique associations with medical service utilization. Disability and Rehabilitation, 38, 205-210.

Laidlaw, K., Thompson, L. W., & Gallagher-Thompson, D. (2004). Comprehensive conceptualization of cognitive behaviour therapy for late life depression. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 32, 389-399.

Ong, A. D., Bergeman, C. S., Bisconti, T. L., & Wallace, K. A. (2006). Psychological resilience, positive emotions, and successful adaptation to stress in later life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 730-749.


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