Age: It’s Just a Number
As someone in her mid-20s, one of the most beautiful parts of navigating young adult life has been the richness of friendships with people in different generations. According to AARP, about 37% of adults report having an intergenerational friendship with someone at least 15 years older or younger. Potential friends are all around—there are probably a few familiar faces from your morning yoga class, by the coffee machine at work, or at church. For Friendship Week, we’re diving into these less-talked-about intergenerational friendships!
How To Make Friends Who Aren’t Your Age
How do you even begin a friendship with someone from a different generation? The four most common ways to make an intergenerational friend—according to various reports—is through work, a mutual friend, a faith-based organization, or in your neighborhood. As it turns out, the context in which you meet someone will already give you common ground—so start there! In any friendship, but especially ones where age is a larger “differentiating factor,” try not to focus on age. While some friendships will have a built-in “age consideration,” such as mentor-mentee relationship, a friendship between equals recognizes that age is simply a number.
When you’re just starting to know someone, you can stick to common interests (work, that mutual friend, or how long they’ve been living in the neighborhood), but make sure to be genuinely interested, empathetic, and open-minded about the rest of their life as well. Change your mindset from “I can’t relate” or “I’ve never been through that” to “I wonder what that’s like.” If they talk about their favorite movies from the ‘70s (from before you were born), ask them about the plot lines or when they first watched it. You can tell them about the ups and downs of living with your roommate, or the latest YouTube star you discovered. Over time, if there is a desire on both sides to nurture the friendship, they will open up more, and you will be more easily able to celebrate the differences.
My cubicle neighbor at work is a 40-something from Bolivia and we talk about everything from his physical therapy routines to the latest books we’ve been reading. His wife also works in the same office, and we’ve gotten close enough that they’ve weighed in welcome advice on my dating life. I’ve found that intergenerational friendships will bloom in the most human and organic ways by just living life together—not always around spontaneous happy hours, late-night study sessions, or mommy playdates. You just have to be patient and make an effort.
How To Navigate Age Gaps
Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to do some red carpet reporting at high-society events in New York City. It was a ton of fun—being starstruck, knowing that Meryl Streep or other celebrities now “knew I existed.” Yet as the novelty wore off, I came to realize that celebrities are just people, too. This dramatically changed how I approach people who are seemingly different than me—whether in social class, authority, or age: no matter how different people may seem, people are just people.
For navigating intergenerational friendships, don’t let age make you hyper-aware of how you’re relating to someone older or younger than you. Age can sometimes be an unconscious or conscious roadblock to forming new friendships, but the less you focus on age and redirect your attention to the person you’re talking to, the better off you’ll be. We’re all just people, and we all have our favorite things, our fears, and our shared humanity. If age does come up (this happens to me when referencing pop culture, history, or even skincare), you can acknowledge it or make a joke about it, but don’t let generational stereotypes overshadow the friendship. Over time, you’ll come to see them as a “friend,” not your “older friend” or “younger friend.” In fact, one of my youth group leaders from high school (who herself was a young mom at the time) is now a dear friend after almost a decade. We get brunch from time to time, just to catch up and even talk about boys and makeup.
Intergenerational friendships can be some of the richest friendships. Almost half (45%) of close intergenerational friendships last at least 10 years. While I love having friends my own age, intergenerational friendships have really brought a different dimension to my life and taken me out of my own limited scope of being a young adult. Older friends remind me of what matters in the long run. They are non-judgmental, and always give the best advice. Meanwhile, younger friends remind me of what I’ve grown through. They remind me to enjoy life, because there’s time to figure things out. Friends of all ages have made my life richer, and there’s no better way to live in community.
What tips have you found to be helpful in your intergenerational friendships?
Alice is a California-grown writer thinking on the things shaping urban living, the modern woman, and living a conscious life of impact in light of a bigger world. A graduate of Northwestern University's j-school, she spent time abroad working with a microfinance project in Peru before transitioning into a 9-5 in the global development sector. When she's not daydreaming about opening a social impact coffee shop, you can find her traveling, plié-ing at the barre studio, or curled up with a good book. Follow her latest creative endeavors and musings at The Kind Citizen or on Instagram at @alice.zhng.