Intergenerational Friendships Offer Timeless Benefits

They say families happen by chance, while friends — by choice. It's not uncommon to see friends sticking closer than families. They genuinely relate to our experiences, celebrate our achievements, and lighten our yoke. "Friendships become even more important as we age," says assistant professor of psychology William Chopik from Michigan State University. Chopic notes that friendships become a stronger measure of well-being than family as you advance in years. So, what kind of friendship do we need?

In the popular imagination, people who can get chummy fast are those from the same age group. The reason being is to be friends you should be on the same wavelength, which is not always possible if you live within different lifetimes that follow different societal values. For instance, millennials argue that music sounds so much better in the early aughts, while boomers enshrine the era of The Beatles as the best decade for pop music. When people from different generations sit at the same table, their conversation is one for the books — but certainly not impossible. Per a 2019 AARP survey, nearly 4 in ten U.S. adults have at least one friend from a different generation. To flourish in an increasingly polarizing world, it's beneficial to have friendships that reflect varying degrees of age gaps and experiences. An intergenerational friendship can be a novel experience, but it follows a similar path: it takes time to build, and it can last a lifetime. Here are the benefits of striking up friendships beyond age. 

You can benefit from a different perspective

At times, we let our generational stereotypes get in our way of learning and growing. For instance, we allege older people lack adaptability and empathy, while the younger generation is reportedly synonymous with entitlement and short attention spans. That's why we tend to stick to those within our age group, with whom we can converse with ease given shared experiences. However, if you want to broaden your horizon, stop fitting people into a generational straightjacket and enlarge your social circle outside your cohort.

Having a multi-faceted network of friends invites opportunities to engage with different people in varied ways, which refreshes our perspective, life coach Sloan Sheridan-Williams tells Psychologies. It helps us look at things in a different light and treat people with more empathy. Older friends can teach you how to think horizontally and on a macro level. These people have been through more schools of hard knocks than you, and they can impart tidbits of wisdom that your friends who are at a similar life stage cannot. Every dialogue with them will be full of those life-enriching moments of "I wish I knew then what I know now." Meanwhile, younger friends are the best at inspiring you to live boldly and bloom. When you constantly bask in their youthful energy, you can't help but regain your sense of adventure, get excited about learning new skills, and feel young again, NewRetirement points out.

They help us overcome cognitive biases

We're all vulnerable to cognitive biases, especially when we have too much on our plate and mental shortcuts beckon so we can make decisions more quickly. Mental shortcuts — or heuristics in the parlance of psychology — help quicken the cognitive process, allowing us to jump to the most likely conclusions based on our perceptions rather than factual information. While these shortcuts are helpful in certain cases, they can result in flawed reasoning and perpetuate misconceptions. Cognitive biases creep into a lot of our day-to-day decisions.

Ageism is a case in point. Coined by Robert Butler in 1969, ageism is prejudice and discrimination against a person based on their older age, which results in inequalities in healthcare and the workplace, writes Leacey E. Brown, a gerontology field specialist from South Dakota State University Extension. For instance, many of us think that old people tend to be forgetful, unwilling to learn new things, susceptible to reduced brainpower, and bad at technology. Cognitive biases make us overconfident in our impressions and predispose us to faulty decision-making.

One way to combat implicit biases and become more empathetic is to let age gaps be a norm in friendships. Hanging out with people from different age groups is helpful in dispelling stereotypes on the grounds of a person's age and minimizing instances of ageism, psychologist Sarah Gregg tells Sunday Edit. Challenging your preconceived notions can give you fresh insights into other people's lives, learn something new for yourself, and build stronger connections.

They make you a superb communicator

Having friends from different age groups helps you become a more discerning and empathetic communicator. This is especially helpful if you're dealing with conflicts revolving around generational gaps — at home and in the workplace. Every generation has their preferred way of communication, from your grandparent's generation to Generation Z. Knowing what floats the boat and what rubs them the wrong way will help you minimize misunderstandings and communicate effectively, per Science of People.

For instance, those born in the Baby Boomer or Generation X prefer communicating face to face, while for most millennials, texting is the most used communication method in their personal life, per a study published in the Concordia Journal of Communication Research. In other words, if you want to put yourself in your mother-in-law's good graces, always opt for face-to-face talks or phone calls instead of texting. If you want to have a chat with your wayward millennial child, always ask them over text in advance instead of making sudden phone calls or house visits.

It may sound strange, but many of us treat strangers with more empathy than our immediate family. We can talk to friends for hours, but we can flip our lid easily when the interlocutor is our flesh and blood — probably due to a lack of proper boundaries and a support system. Having intergenerational friendships not only teaches us active listening and tactfulness, but it also makes us more patient and compassionate toward our closest family members. 

There's no sense of competition at all

Feelings of envy, albeit unhealthy, are not uncommon in friendships. These feelings of inadequacy can cause us to withdraw and give up on friendships. Imagine: you and your friend graduate and start dating around the same time, but now you're both in your late 30s and she's happily married with a big family — and you're not. How can you not feel jealous of your friend's success when life always gives you a kick in the teeth?

Friendship expert Shasta Nelson explains to Harvard Business Review that feeling jealousy could be our way of coping with the emotional pain of rejection — and instead of feeling envious — you should realize and accept that your friends' success has nothing to do with your misfortunes. However, it's easier said than done. If you have a bit of a jealous streak but still want to have some friends in the end, look no further than intergenerational friendships.

There's more support and less competition in friendships where two people go through different life stages and have different goals in sight, says Aviad Faruz, CEO and founder of FARUZO (via A Sweat Life). For instance, you don't see a fresh graduate who's busy finding a job getting jealous of her freshly retired friend who's on the hunt for the best place to retire in. If any, the older friend might impart wisdom obtained from life experiences that helps put the younger one on the right track.

They help you find a parental figure in older friends

For those who don't have or haven't had a parent for a long time, you can find a parental figure in friends who are 20 or 30 years your senior, according to CareGivers of America. Nobody can outgrow their fundamental human needs that can only be fulfilled by a parental figure, such as feeling cherished, feeling secure, feeling accomplished, or feeling a sense of belonging. You can never be too old to search for and benefit from a parental figure — a guiding hand from someone who shares as much interest in your personal growth and well-being as you are. Not only can a parental figure give you the emotional support needed to feel loved and validated, but they can also offer you practical advice, be it in family matters or career, that helps you navigate life with realistic expectations and confidence.

By the same token, you can be a mentor or a parental figure to a younger friend. Struggling youngsters can benefit from mentoring as they navigate difficult life transitions, such as adjusting to upsetting changes at home or early adulthood, per Youth. If you care enough, you can reroute a broken person's life in the right direction. When you actively become a positive influence in someone's life, help them cultivate healthy habits, and protect them from misinformation obtained from peers and social media, you'll see the person grow from strength to strength and become the best version of themselves.

You'll learn new skills

One of the biggest lessons from the award-winning drama series "Squid Game" is that listening to the elderly — whose greatest advantage is their experience — can save your day. No matter how advanced technology can become, it can never replace the human experience. When two people from different generations come together, they can tap into each other's wealth of knowledge and insights that are unique to their cohorts, per Samvedna Care.

For instance, older people who have "been there, done that" can open our eyes to important life hacks and outlook-reshaping philosophies, such as the benefits of a prenup, ways to pay off debts, and how to overcome a nasty break-up. Meanwhile, younger people can introduce us to modern technologies that make our day-to-day activities more convenient and colorful. For instance, many elderly people lose their predilection for movement as they age and they get tired easily. But being in the company of young, fun-loving people will inspire them to flex their dormant muscles and improve their activity levels, according to Optimal Home Care, Inc.