Research Highlights

An Age-Old Fight? What’s Driving the Intergenerational Tensions in the U.S.

Michael North headshot

Overview: In a new paper, “Millennials Versus Boomers: An Asymmetric Pattern of Realistic and Symbolic Threats Drives Intergenerational Tensions in the United States,” NYU Stern Professor Michael North, along with co-authors Felix Danbold (University College London School of Management) and Stéphane P. Franciol (The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania), examines Millennial and Baby Boomer attitudes towards different generations, defines which concerns drive these generations' perceptions of each other, and tests a strategy to increase harmony between them.

Why study this now: There are numerous articles in the media purporting a rift between Millennials and Baby Boomers on a variety of topics. However, there has been a lack of empirical research to back these assertions. This paper aims to better understand intergenerational relationships, conflicts, and threats, and also offers suggestions as to how to reduce these tensions. 

What the researchers found:

  • Both Millennials and Baby Boomers express more hostile attitudes towards one another than toward other generations, but for very distinct reasons.
  • Millennial attitudes were driven primarily by “realistic threat” (the fear that Baby Boomers’ actions hamper their life prospects).
  • Baby Boomer attitudes were driven primarily by “symbolic threat” (the fear that Millennials threaten traditional American values).
  • By challenging the legitimacy of dividing people into generational categories and instead shifting thinking toward age categories, both groups can experience a decreased hostility toward each other.

Key insight: “By exploring the rift opposing Baby Boomers and Millennials, we show how tensions between the two largest adult generations in the United States are driven by asymmetrical experiences of threats,” say the authors. “We also leverage the unique relationship between age and generational identities to reframe people’s thinking in a way that seems to reduce perceptions of threats and tensions.”

This paper is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.