Ever increasing circles
Why we should reach out across the generation gap
Reports circulate about a friendship crisis. Articles in lifestyle magazines and on websites and, naturally, posts across social media channels are bombarding the public with warnings about how modern living is damaging that most important of qualities — friendship.
As people move with their jobs in an ever-fluid working world; as working hours get longer; as workplaces offer their employees on-site gym facilities, cafes, bars, even sleeping pods — so we have less time left to connect with people outside the workspace and make friends.
The problem of loneliness
And of course, that is bad for us. Loneliness is a big driver in increased mental health issues. It impacts the way we feel about ourselves, it lessens our self-confidence. It certainly reduces our levels of happiness. Physically, loneliness has been linked to health risks such as heart disease, high blood pressure and a range of other conditions.
Conversely, according to author Carlin Flora, who wrote Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends make Us Who We Are, a strong friendship network has huge benefits. Surrounding ourselves with friends can reduce feelings of stress, increase the motivation to take care of ourselves and promote levels of self confidence to set and achieve higher levels in all areas of our lives.
It is certainly a problem. In May 2018, a nationwide survey of 20,000 adults from health-insurance provider Cigna found that “most American adults are considered lonely.” A separate study, The Loneliness Experiment, from BBC Radio 4 and Wellcome Collection revealed that 40 percent of those between the ages of 16 to 24 say they feel lonely often or very often.
Casting the net wide
All of which feeds into my own theory that we can never have too many friends and one way we can increase our friendship numbers is to cast the net wider. By that, I mean we should be looking to build more intergenerational friendships.
There was a recent story circulating on social media about an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife of more than 50 years. His world had fallen apart and, he said, life had lost all meaning. A visit from a little girl changed all of that. Months on from the death of his wife, the little girl visits the elderly man, who is living in a care home. He tells her about stories from his past and teaches her skills such as painting and drawing — she gives him the gift of chatter and laughter.
Of course this can be viewed as a cliche. Of course, for every beautiful friendship between one kid and one old person there are countless stories of old people who do not see anyone but their doctor. There are a growing number of examples of men in their 40s who take their own lives because they have no-one to talk to; depressing tales of suicidal teenagers who feel so alone that life just isn’t worth living.
Which really is why friendship needs a rethink.
Friendships between people of different ages is often seen as weird. Sometimes it reeks of something far more sinister. We live in times when the image of old man playing with a young girl usually leads to feelings of suspicion, horror and disgust. But, just for a moment, cast that image aside and think about the positives that can be gained from developing friendships with people from outside your immediate circle of friends.
There is comfort in being around people your own age. You have common reference points. You share experiences, you are going through the same life changes. You are possibly in similar income brackets and face the same career-related choices. Of course that gives you lots to talk about.
But what about seeing things from a different perspective? Spending time in the company of someone older than yourself will open your eyes and expand your mind.
For example, older people are a connection to our pasts. You might not remember when phones were attached to the wall by wires and couldn’t fit in your pocket but an older friend will. An older friend will be able to tell you what life was like when the Berlin Wall was torn down. An older friend knows how to use a paper map.
And an older friend will also be able to see the bigger picture because they just have that greater level of life experience.
You might be going through the wringer at work because of some changes within the organisation. You and all your colleagues are terrified of job losses and redundancies. How calming is it to hear that the same thing happened 10 years ago and actually things got a whole heap better as a result. There is nothing to worry about. How calming is it to hear that!
Older friends have been there. They have leant life’s lessons and they have learnt how to deal with things that have been thrown at them. And when, despite their warnings, you plough on regardless down the wrong track, they will be able to help you deal with the fall out because they have done that too.
The other great thing about older, more experienced friends, is that they are far less judgemental than your peers. They know that sometimes you will make mistakes but one mistake doesn’t mean your whole life is a failure. That is the refreshing perspective older people can bring.
Through the eyes of the young
On the other hand, younger friends can bring their own host of positivity. Young people will be judgemental, often harshly so, but quite often they are right. Currently, young people are pushing the agenda for dealing with the climate crisis. They are demanding political reforms. They are saying no to excessive alcohol. They are leading the way in reducing our carbon footprint. Personally, I feel we can learn a lot from younger friends, including a re-setting of our moral compass.
It is also the younger generations who drive change. Through their choice of entertainment medium, through their discovery of new fashion designers, through their tastes in food and drink, they are the consumers who dictate what the next ‘big thing’ will be.
A great example of the impact of the 20-somethings on the world is the chaging way we travel. For many 20–30 year-olds the idea of car ownership is totally alien. Bicycles, scooters, public transport— these are the modes of travel that are growing, driven by the generation that has realised that we need to change our ways to save our planet.
Words, words, words
Widening the friendship circle can have the knock-on effect of widening your vocabulary. It’s obvious that ‘hanging out’ with people in their 20s will introduce the middle-age generation to ‘yoof-speak’, but what about the older generation? They too have their idiosyncrasies which can expand your own lexicon. I’ve recently started using the word ‘delightful’ after spending time with a couple in their late 60s. It’s not an unusual word but it is certainly one I never used before I started discussing the garden design of Humphrey Repton — a new interest I discovered with guidance from my new old friend.
And then there is the musical tastes of different generations. On the BBC’s musical station Radio 6 there is a daily slot where a parent and a child discuss their musical tastes. To hear that a nine year old is being introduced to The Clash while dad is discovering the delights of Shawn Mendes or Rita Ora is to understand how intergenerational relationships can bridge cultural divides.
Seeking out and fostering friendships with people from different generations brings nothing but positive outcomes. Gaining insight into how someone else is thinking; looking at issues through the eyes of others; appreciating tastes in music, literature and art that might differ widely to that which we have been introduced;trying new foods and drinks; exploring different ways to travel, these are all ways that we can expand our own perspectives and personalities. By increasing our friendship circles, we grow as individuals.