Generational differences affect educational leadership (in MEDCs)

A resident in a Mursi settlement in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia looks out from the front of her dwelling.

A few years ago, I visited a makeshift settlement of the nomadic Mursi people in the Omo Valley near the border between Ethiopia and South Sudan.  As I was undertaking field research for a Geography textbook I was writing at the time, I did some preparatory reading and learned that my journey was “not for the pusillanimous”.  I also read that this “is a two-footed leap into true African wilds. You’ll battle roads that eat Land Rovers for brunch, wage war with squadrons of mosquitoes and tsetse flies, and sweat more than you thought humanly possible.”

Because of the time of year, I didn’t encounter any mosquitoes, but (by law) I did need to have an armed guard travel with me as an escort.  I asked, half-jokingly, whether the armed escort was for wild animals or hostile people, and I was told “for hostile people, of course”, as though such a response should have been self-evident.

Needless to say, not many outsiders choose to visit the Mursi people.  However, those who know me well will understand when I say “it was a fabulous experience that I will never forget”.

Life for the Mursi people today is barely different from the way it was 500 years ago.  The women still wear their distinctive lip plates, education still focuses on traditional story-telling by the elders, rites of passage such as ‘korda kôma’, ‘jônê chibin’, the ‘donga’ and lip piercing remain timelessly unchanged, and ceremonial duelling (a form of ritualised male violence) remains popular among the unmarried men.

The absence of electricity (and the internet) means Mursi parents never have to stop their children playing video games or watching TikTok videos.  Younger Mursi people never order food online for home delivery.  In the absence of birth control, young women are having children at about the same age as their mothers did, and their grandmothers before that, and their great-grandmothers, and so on.

A mother with two of her children in a Mursi settlement in the Omo Valley of Ethiopia.

‘Generational change’ is an almost meaningless term for the Mursi people and for thousands of other societies around the world where time-honoured traditions continue to define daily life.

The same cannot be said for more globalised societies.  In the MEDCs (More Economically Developed Countries), generational change is so rapid that we identify each generation by a name and a list of (highly generalised) characteristics:

Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency in MEDCs to label generations other than one’s own using derogatory terms like “clueless boomers” or “lazy millennials”.  Like all stereotypes – racial, religious, national, neighbourhood, gender – the labels are almost always inaccurate because they over-simplify and negate individual people’s character by grouping unlike individuals into amorphous categories.

The innate character, personality and upbringing of every individual person matters greatly when defining each person’s identity.  Nonetheless, it isn’t surprising that ‘big picture’ differences do emerge from generation to generation (in MEDCs) due to external, objective influences such as historical events, communications, pandemics, wars, macroeconomics, migration, technology – the list is long.

What makes a boomer a boomer, a silent a silent, or a millennial a millennial? 

Elderly hand with baby's feet

A recent book by Psychology Professor Jean Twenge titled “Generations” makes a strong case that technology is the consistent, fundamental factor leading to generational change.  Although the data in her book is heavily US-centric, the case she makes is clearly applicable to MEDCs in general.  She traces the cumulative impact of technological innovations such as the radio in the 1930s, television in the 1960s, personal computers in the 1980s, laptop computers and the internet in the 1990s, mobile phones in the 2000s, social media in the 2010s and generative artificial intelligence in the 2020s.

During most of the twentieth century, these changes resulted in increased accessibility to information, more widespread dissemination of popular culture, easier connectivity, rising aspirational materialism, and greater democratisation of publishing rights.  In more recent years, the impact has shifted into more negative territory and now includes blurring of work and personal life, growing mental health issues, less integrated family life, increasing political polarisation, job displacement, spread of misinformation, greater sensitivity to personal image, rise of the precarious gig economy, and a stronger sense of being “always connected”.  Jonathan Haidt’s recent book “The Anxious Generation” affirms this hypothesis with compelling, deeply worrying, research-based evidence.

Perhaps the most significant overall macro-consequence of generational change in MEDCs is rising individualism combined with declining personal resilience.  This is demonstrated by strong negative correlations between chronological age on one hand, and mental health issues, cyberbullying, individualism, aspirational materialism, declining respect for authority and reduced sense of duty on the other.

Twenge claims that changing technology use is the dominant factor in causing this generational transition.  She states (on page 39):

“As the technological leaps of the post-war era accelerated, individualism grew: TV allowed people to see others’ perspectives and experiences, jet and space travel made the rest of the world seem closer, and the shift away from manual labour opened up more job opportunities for women.  Gradually, an emphasis on individual rights began to replace the old system of social rules organised around race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

Television created an environment of high expectations though the glamorous way it portrayed the world, especially through mass advertising.  The rise of the internet has amplified this trend to a deafening level, particularly through the widespread embrace of social media.  It is not difficult to understand how such significant technological changes in a short period of time (evolutionally speaking) would lead to significant generational differences.

Understandably, generational differences are a common topic of discussion among teachers in schools.  These discussions may be humorous, or perceptive, or a deep expression of frustration, or most frequently, a combination of all three.  This is to be expected because teachers are almost invariably members of a different generation to the students they teach, and therefore everyday surprises, annoyances and misunderstandings can be expected to become an obligatory part of the teaching experience.

A grandmother visits her grandaughter on Special People's Day at The Awty International School, Houston.

Generational differences in classrooms are fairly well understood.  Less well understood – and even less frequently acknowledged - is the impact of generational differences between the school’s leadership and the staff, or between the school’s board and the leadership.

What tensions could arise between a school’s leadership and the staff, or between the board and the Principal, when there are significant generational gaps?  Might generational differences lead to conflicts and misunderstandings when unstated assumptions and expectations are never articulated?  I have no trouble thinking of six possibilities:

None of this is new.  In about 1274, Peter the Hermit preached a sermon that included this reflection:

“The world is passing through troublesome times.  The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they alone knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them”. 

Much earlier, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322BC) stated:

“They [young people] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things –8 and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning -- all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything -- they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else”.

Even earlier, the Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399BC) stated:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.  Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.  They no longer rise when elders enter the room.  They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers”.

The solution to generational tensions and misunderstandings in schools is to employ a range of staff who represent as many generations as possible and to appoint Board members from several generations.

Generational diversity in senior leadership and board governance will almost always create a more tolerant, empathetic, dynamic, humane, inclusive and effective decision-making environment that not only reflects the world’s diverse and rapidly changing MEDCs, but also equips its students with the diverse skills required to function effectively.

Paradoxically, traditional societies such as the Mursi have understood and valued the importance of multi-generational understanding for centuries.

- Dr Stephen Codrington


Haidt, J (2024) The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.  London: Allen Lane.

Twenge, JM (2023) Generations: The real differences between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Silents – and what they mean for America’s future.  New York: Atria Books.

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