In today’s fast-paced world, it has become increasingly challenging to forge meaningful connections. The absence of the built-in social network provided by student housing or graduate schemes often leaves individuals, particularly those aged 16 to 24 and young renters, vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression. Recognizing this issue, researchers have delved into the topic, shedding light on the transformative power of intergenerational friendships.
Traditionally, when seeking companionship, we gravitate towards individuals of similar age, assuming they will share our worldview and life experiences. However, this assumption is not always a reliable indicator for forming genuine friendships. The truth is, connections are made based on shared interests and values, regardless of age. Intergenerational friendships, which bring together people from different age groups, offer a remedy to loneliness while simultaneously combating ageism in society.
Recently, social scientist Riikke Korkiamäki and I conducted research, conducting interviews with older and younger participants who had at least one friend from a different age group. Through our investigation, we discovered that friendships between older and younger individuals not only promote social inclusion and a sense of belonging but also prove to be enjoyable, interesting, and mutually beneficial. As one participant insightfully stated, “People are people; we don’t wear our birthday cards around our necks.”
From our conversations with these intergenerational friends, we gleaned numerous reasons why cultivating friendships with individuals from different generations is essential. Here, we present four compelling motivations:
- Embrace Difference and Learn from Each Other While shared interests, values, and perspectives are likely to be present in intergenerational friendships, the beauty lies in the unique insights gained from embracing differences. Older individuals have had the privilege of accumulating a wealth of personal experiences and skills, both within and beyond the workplace. Naturally, they are eager to share these experiences with their younger counterparts. Conversely, younger friends, often digital natives, possess a deep understanding of technology, pop culture, and other contemporary topics, which they can introduce to their older friends. This give-and-take dynamic fosters a sense of equality and support, as both parties contribute and receive guidance.
As one participant confided, the reciprocation between friends played a crucial role in their personal satisfaction: “Feeling needed, useful, and in demand – it’s a significant aspect of friendship.”
- Fun and Laughter: Essential Elements Friendship thrives on joy and laughter, and intergenerational friendships are no exception. Participants frequently highlighted the enjoyment derived from sharing a sense of humor and exchanging jokes with their older friends. One participant remarked, “I don’t really feel any older than her. We have a great bit of a laugh, you know. Chatting and laughing, telling jokes… I could say anything to her.”
- Find New Networks of Support Intergenerational friendships offer a powerful and often overlooked source of support, care, and inclusion. Older friends serve as vital bridges, connecting younger individuals to networks and support systems that their peers of similar ages might not be able to provide. This becomes especially valuable when navigating a new city, country, or workplace. The wisdom and guidance of older friends can make all the difference in adapting to unfamiliar environments.
- Combat Ageism Together Ageism, a pervasive issue affecting one in three individuals according to the World Health Organization, can have detrimental effects on well-being, leading to isolation and mental distress. Remarkably, intergenerational friendships play a crucial role in dismantling stereotypes and prejudices associated with different age groups. By fostering genuine connections and understanding, these friendships counteract ageism as people develop bonds and appreciation for one another, regardless of age.
If you’re eager to forge friendships beyond your own age group, there are various avenues to explore. Consider joining clubs or engaging in leisure pursuits where people of all ages congregate. Alternatively, a simple coffee break with an older colleague can lay the foundation for a meaningful connection. As our research demonstrated, intergenerational friendships can sprout unexpectedly, even in the most ordinary of circumstances. One participant’s lifelong friendship began when she narrowly avoided colliding with a woman in a shopping center car park. As they recovered from the near miss over a cup of coffee, they discovered a shared passion for sea swimming, and their friendship blossomed from there.
Opportunities to cultivate friendships with individuals from different age groups, unlocking the myriad benefits they bring, are abundantly available if we cast aside preconceived notions and stereotypes. In a world plagued by loneliness and isolation, intergenerational friendships serve as a beacon of hope, fostering connections that transcend age and enriching the lives of all involved.