Thanks to the school, college and the workplace, we often end up forming friendships with those of the same age. It’s natural to stay close with people in our cohort as we grow old in tandem, sharing life experiences along the way. However, expanding our social circle beyond this — whether that’s with someone younger or older — has a whole host of life-enriching benefits. In fact, according to a study from AARP, 93% of those who agree to have friends in a different age group have benefits that are different from the benefits that friendships among people of the same age can deliver. However, the same research found that just over a third of Americans had a close friend who is at least 15 years older or younger than they are.
Intergenerational friendship is better for society and individuals
As humans, we historically lived in multi-generational groups. It is only in more recent times with urbanization and migration in the Western world that communities and families have become more fractured and separated geographically. “In tribal times we would have connections with people from different generations. We wouldn’t be so boxed in and stick with our cohort,” Performance and Confident coach Olivia James pointed out.
“Intergenerational friendships are a dual win — both for society and the individual,” psychologist and author Sarah Gregg told us. As a society, friendships across ages build community and empathy. “Studies have shown that mixing with different groups helps to break down stereotypes and decreases issues such as ageism,” Gregg highlighted. “For the individual, there are opportunities for both parties to gain a fresh perspective and grow,” she added.
Choosing friends of different ages can also help with ‘comparisonitis’. It is very easy to compare your life with someone of the same age and feel envious of what they might have. “A twenty-something can look at a friend and think: She has a successful job, owns a lovely apartment and has just become engaged to a great guy. And I have none of these things, life’s passing me by, time’s running out, I’m not as clever or attractive as her,” James suggests. Picking friends of different ages allows you to look at the bigger picture and not compare or compete.
The conversations you have can also be richer and more interesting. Varying ages have different life perspectives and experiences which can expose you to new ways of thinking and doing. “If you’re a mother with a young baby, you don’t want to spend all your time with mothers with young babies,” James advises.
In a similar vein, sticking with the same friends you have had since high school or college can often mean you get pigeon-holed. It’s normal for us to change as we get older but sticking with friends you have had since your youth can often mean you are not fully understood as your evolved self. Finding new friends of different ages avoids this issue. “You can be truly yourself,” James notes.
The benefits of having older friends
The biggest benefit here is the perspective. This is especially helpful if you are going through a difficult life event such as job redundancy or break-up. “When something happens and you think this is the end of the world. Having older friends who have been through something similar allows you to see people survive and thrive after these difficult events,” James says.
Picking friends at a later life stage, often means they have a different outlook to those who are a similar age to you. “Typically older people are less focused on success and careers and more on their happiness,” Gregg points out. This can be refreshing when you’re younger and the focus is so much on the next career steps and life goals like buying property or starting a family.
The benefits of having younger friends
When older people engage with younger people, share their life experiences and perspective can be extremely rewarding. “For human beings, giving is good. Giving our wisdom and attention makes us feel better. It gives us meaning and is good for our mental health,” James highlights.
When people reach the older years of their life, mixing only with other elderly people can be limiting. Especially as they often experience the deaths of people from their own cohort. Mixing with younger people can be really rewarding and invigorating. “Studies suggest it can increase brain function. A different part of the brain is used that gets them out of their routine and doing something different,” Gregg says.
How to form intergenerational friendships
In modern Western society, there aren’t huge opportunities for different generations to mix. This, as Gregg highlights, is something that needs to change. “We know it’s beneficial for both parties and as a society we know we need to work on this,” she comments.
Trying to build intergenerational friendships is often down to luck. However, you can put yourself out there in ways that will increase your chances of building a wider aged social circle. “Go and do something you want to do not with the intention of making friends but hope for the best. Arts and charities are places where there are likely to be people who are outgoing,” James suggests.
While it may not always be easy to forge these bonds, the payoff is well worth it — for both friends.