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Navigating Conflict in Families Across Generations: More Connects Us Than Separates Us

By Jill Shipley & Harmony Abney Published February 27, 2024

Friction between generations is nothing new, but successfully navigating the conflict requires curiosity over judgment, respectful communication, and seeking common ground – focusing on similarities not differences, says AlTi’s Head of Governance and Education, Jill Shipley.

Family dynamics and relationships are complex. They are the only connections we have for life with people we did not choose to be connected to. Blood ties do not guarantee alignment in values, beliefs, or personality preferences. It is understandable there will be misunderstandings, disagreements, even conflict – especially across generations. 

Although intergenerational communication has always been a challenge, there are significant differences in our lives today that compound the situation and tension. Let’s unpack the issues that stress our multigenerational relationships, then explore the good news – that there is more that connects us than separates us – and determine what can be done to find common ground as families and as human beings in general.

Longer Lifespan and Resulting Power Struggles

For the first time in history, it is normal to have great grandparents meet their great grandchildren. Now four, even five generations of a family are alive at once and, in some cases, making decisions together. The more generations involved, the more difficult it can be. The notion of generational differences arose when researchers discovered age to be the most common predictor1 of differences in behavior and attitude on issues ranging from social policy to foreign affairs.  

Although exciting and revolutionary, the dream of living to be 100 has its complexities. It leaves a significant percentage of people “sandwiched” in the middle, simultaneously raising children and caring for aging parents. 

Expanded lifespans also have an impact on the transfer of power, wealth, and decision-making. Senior generations may now be holding onto control well into their 80s, meaning the next generation could be in their 60s – waiting for a large span of their lifetime – before they can take over the reins or even have a say. 

Meanwhile, grandchildren who are in their late 30s or 40s often feel more than ready to take over, or at least deserving of a voice at the table. Their parents’ emotions vacillate – on one hand, empathizing with the feeling of desperately waiting in the wings, and on the other, reluctant to relinquish the authority they may have just gained.

We’ve been advising a family, the Joneses, in just such a situation. The wealth creator recently passed away at age 85, leaving a significant amount of money and real estate to four children, aged 55 to 65, with no preparation on how to manage the finances or how to make decisions together. There are numerous adult grandchildren aged 19 to 38, who have expressed interest in the “family business,” some of whom are likely to be more qualified than their parents or aunts and uncles.

The Jones siblings expressed strong emotions, including anger at their parents for not telling them earlier about their estate plan; disappointment that they could not learn from them about the business; and resentment, saying: “This is not a gift; it is a huge burden.” Luckily, the four siblings are close in terms of both their relationship and their geography. They worked with AlTi to create an initial plan that involved monthly Zoom meetings and quarterly meetings in person. Four grandchildren were nominated by their generation to attend meetings as non-voting guests. They are entrusted to share the perspective and hopes of their siblings and cousins and are able to be mentored by senior family members and advisers. The four siblings swore they would do their best to avoid leaving the next generation a burden and have implemented a communication plan to ensure transparency, knowledge transfer, and skill development.

Technology Broadcasting Polarizing Views 24/7

Exponential advances in technology also drastically impact intergenerational relationships. The ubiquitous use of cell phones and social media has changed the fabric of communication. Prior to social media and cable television, there were limited sources of news. The widespread use of various technologies and opinion-based information sources can change family relationships and exacerbate the clashes of values that so frequently occur between generations. 

The likes of social media and cell phones are generally positive things and do not necessarily cause those clashes. After all, younger generations have been finding ways to rebel against their parents well before the adoption of such technologies. But they do affect how values are activated and how those generational clashes manifest themselves.

One example is the way in which social media connects people from around the world, meaning users are no longer comparing themselves to others in their community or exchanging views solely with them. Instead, their neighborhood is now global, meaning they can connect with like-minded peers all over the planet who will influence and affirm their opinions. Before social media, you would attend a family occasion and be likely totally unaware of your uncle’s strong political preferences or your cousin’s obsession with conspiracy theories. 

Typically, families say their relationships matter first and foremost, but it can be difficult to hold back when someone is expressing an opposite viewpoint with such certainty. To help families navigate this when they gather, we encourage having an agreement such as: “We commit to keeping our political or religious beliefs to ourselves,” and hold each other accountable for the sake of the overarching relationships.

Another example is communication preferences. A client in her 70s recently vented that she had left her grandson “at least five voicemails,” and when he finally answered, he told her: “No one checks voicemail anymore, Memaw.” During a recent rising gen program hosted by AlTi, an attendee shared: “I do not engage with any company such as food delivery or a doctor’s office if talking over the phone is required. If I cannot set it up online or over text, I find a different option.” Another expressed: “Phone calls feel intrusive, like someone is walking through my front door without knocking first.”  

Though small things, these communication preferences and stereotypes based on age do impact relationships. Such issues can be easily resolved – but first, require a level of awareness of the other’s point of view and preferences. Sometimes, it is as easy as asking: “What is your preference when I reach out? Can I just FaceTime or should I text and see if you are available first?” Then work to find a compromise that suits everyone. We have multiple clients who use a family WhatsApp group (or even Snapchat), with grandchildren teaching senior family members about the technology and vice versa.

More Alike Than We Think

Can we imagine a different kind of world where such tensions are talked about – and even embraced – rather than exacerbated by mutual misunderstanding and mistrust? In our opinion, the answer is yes. In fact, for the benefit of such families – and society in general – it’s the only way ahead.

All families, regardless of their financial status, experience generational struggles. Conflict is normal and, actually, can be positive, as it means you care. Apathy is far worse.

The key to managing these differences is remembering what really matters. Most families express a desire for each member to be happy and to thrive, and for the family as a whole to flourish. And flourishing looks different for everyone. Many love spending time together and choose to gather for holidays and celebrations. The Joneses were already getting together annually for family reunions. When they had to take on shared decisions about the wealth and properties, it was relatively easy to add additional time for “business meetings.”

Sometimes, family relationships are not naturally harmonious. Like any relationship, it takes effort, intention, and patience. Especially if there is an operating business, investment or charitable vehicle that requires shared decisions, and in a way, ties a family together more tightly than they would be without ownership of a shared asset. And, in rare cases, exiting may be the best decision for the well-being of an individual or family branch and, ultimately, the entire family unit.

For families focused on long-term sustainability, we recommend exploring what you have in common – where you are aligned. We help families define a shared purpose: A vision or mission everyone can agree to and strive for together.

For example, the Jones family initially came together around shared feelings of sadness and frustration because they were unprepared for the responsibilities required when their parents passed away. The four siblings and their partners were all committed to making certain future generations were adequately prepared.

The governance framework created allows for shared decision-making and is also helping to prepare the rising generation for leadership roles. Consequently, the senior generation do not have to give up control, while the rising generation feel engaged, involved, and that their voice matters. The family made a commitment to ensure the business aspects do not harm family relationships above all else. They set boundaries between work and play and make time to share stories, honor traditions, and foster a sense of belonging. Prioritizing these activities creates deeper connection and, in turn, better positions the family to navigate conflicts when they arise. 

Deepening Relationships

For another family with similar challenges, and four generations living across multiple continents, we set up a two-way mentorship framework – an idea that came out of the first annual retreat that we facilitated.

There was a mutual desire to deepen relationships across the generations, so we helped them create a program where an interested senior family member was paired for a year with a member from the rising generation. They were encouraged to meet at least twice and present to the family what they learned at the following retreat.

The program was a huge success and continues today, with some mentorship relationships lasting far beyond the one-year timeframe. Some of the most positive outcomes have included:

  • A few members of the rising generation taught seniors about impact investing and completely changed the way the donor-advised fund (DAF) was invested. The family is working on a values and mission statement that will guide the overarching impact of their money management, inspired by the passion and interest expressed by the younger family members.
  • One mentor pair presented a business idea that the younger person had, and numerous family members offered to invest in its launch.
  • The most significant outcome of all was deepening relationships across the family – connecting great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts with great-grandchildren, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, from ages 19 to 90.

There are several keys to such successes, but it nearly always starts with focusing on similarities and not differences, to build a shared understanding, and to remain curious instead of jumping to conclusions. That relies on breaking down stereotypes and prejudices, not making judgments based on generation or age, and realizing that we all have so much to learn from each other.

It’s also about building shared experiences to ensure that families have more that connects them than legal documents and the money in their bank accounts. That can be as much about building open lines of communication as creating and honoring family traditions. Ultimately, communication and respect are the foundation of healthy relationships and play a crucial role in maintaining family unity.

How We Help Families Manage Intergenerational Relationships

Here at AlTi, we take a proactive approach. After all, we are a multigenerational firm ourselves, with a purposeful passion for serving multigenerational clients.

We realize that having significant wealth can be isolating, so we share the benefit of our broad experience with other families, as well as bringing different families together at our multigenerational learning events, to share their experiences. Just realizing you are not alone with your challenges can be powerful in itself.

Our work goes way beyond investing and the technical aspects of wealth management. For example, we have trained facilitators who can support discussions across the generations and ensure all voices are heard, while understanding the emotions and managing the dynamics at play. It’s simple – if you feel someone is talking at you, rather than with you, most people will disengage. This often happens in families where there is a voice or two louder than the others. Keep in mind that improving communication within a family is an ongoing process, and it requires effort and commitment from everyone. Often, having a facilitator in the room creates a much better outcome for all involved.

Above all, we optimistically believe that relationships can be mended or strengthened, and it can be worthwhile not to go it alone. There’s nearly always too much at stake, and the opportunities that come from getting things right, across the generations, are too good to miss out on.

About the authors
  • Jill Shipley

    Jill Shipley is AlTi’s Head of Governance and Education Practice. She helps families and family enterprises navigate the impact of multigenerational wealth. She brings over 20 years’ experience in family systems, preparing rising generations, communicating about wealth, transition planning, governance, and philanthropy.

  • Harmony Abney

    Harmony is Director in AlTi's Governance and Education group. She brings over 15 years of experience working with ultra-high net worth families, family offices, and foundations, helping them to define the impact they want their wealth to have on their families and the world.

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The “Joneses” mentioned in this article are used as a representative example to illustrate the concepts discussed. This example has been chosen for its relevance and ability to convey the necessary points effectively. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.



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