Family & Education

Building Bridges: Adults Young and Old Are Natural Allies

The older and younger generations have more in common than you might think
BY Jeff Minick TIMEFebruary 1, 2023 PRINT

In the 21st century, division has become as American as mom and apple pie.

Red states and blue states, left and right, black and white, male and female, rich and poor: Our culture teaches us to judge others by such criteria as skin color, where we went to school and the work we do, and the generation in which we were born. Instead of building bridges, some of our politicians, commentators, and academics work furiously to dig canyons.

The gulf between young and old receives less attention in the media than other issues, but it, too, is both real and unfortunate. At times, this generational misunderstanding can also be amusing. How many times have you heard folks 60 and older say, “I don’t understand young people today”? At the same time, those 40 and under will complain, “Boomers just don’t get us.”

It’s too bad, really, because with all the mess and muddle of our national misunderstandings, both groups are missing opportunities to gain wisdom, better health, and personal growth.

A Few Stats

A study from Columbia University reports that 1 in 3 adults over the age of 50 feels lonely. Caring for an infirm spouse, retirement, the deaths of friends, and other factors can lead these men and women to feel socially isolated. In turn, they may neglect their health, remove themselves from activities, and turn on the television for company rather than ringing up a friend or family member.

Meanwhile, millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, and the Gen Z Americans who follow them, exhibit even higher rates of isolation and social disconnection. Search online for “Millennial loneliness” or “Generation Z loneliness,” and articles, data, and polls appear declaring them “the loneliest generations.” Social media clearly hasn’t replaced face-to-face friendships.

Given these figures and this common sense of isolation across the generations, might not a merger of these lonely hearts produce some happiness for young and old alike?

And There’s More

In addition to companionship, seniors and their younger counterparts can bring special gifts to each other.

“From my grandfather, [I learned] good morals and the government of my temper,” wrote the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

Most of us who are older can relate to the emperor’s gratitude. Like him, we may have learned any number of lessons from our elders, from telling the truth to cooking family favorites to changing a tire on the car. We remember a teacher who steered us through a rough patch, or an employer who inspired us to push harder and strive for excellence.

Examples of such mentors abound in literature and film. In Mark Helprin’s novel “A Soldier of the Great War,” for example, an elderly professor of aesthetics shares the learning of a lifetime with a 20-something Italian mechanic. In the movie “Secondhand Lions,” two crotchety old adventurers take a young nephew under their wing and raise him to manhood.

And the young? They repay the old for their lessons and their friendship in a coin that can be had nowhere else. Beginning in my early 50s, for 12 years, I worked full time teaching liberal arts to seminars of homeschoolers. I found joy in hearing the laughter of my students, watching their friendships and flirtations, listening to their dreams, and helping them learn and grow. Many of them took classes with me for four and five years, advancing, for instance, from a middle school writing course to advanced placement English composition. During this time, I became well-acquainted with them and with their families. Those years of working with teenagers were the happiest and most exciting of my working life.

When making these connections, both young and old act as teachers and pupils. The young instruct by their innocence and idealism, the old by experience and wisdom. Put them together, and you might find you’ve built the best classroom in the world, even if it meets at a kitchen table or in a local coffee shop.

Coming Together: Some Notes for the Older Gang

Suppose you’re looking for companionship, or you just want to enjoy the company of some young people. One way to begin is by searching online for “programs linking old to young,” where you’ll find sites ranging from mentoring in elementary and secondary schools to working with volunteer outfits focused on intergenerational relationships.

Local organizations can also link you up with the young. One female acquaintance of mine, age 69, teaches a Sunday school for teens at a small church and finds that work a delight. A middle-aged college teacher mentors men in their 20s and 30s, mostly via the internet, on building stronger relationships with their peers.

Of course, such opportunities also lie closer to home. Teenage grandchildren, nephews and nieces in college, that 30-year-old you just hired in accounting, or that new guy on the construction crew who looks a little lost—befriending and guiding them can liven up your world.

It’s All About Relationship

Epoch Times Photo
Interacting with a young grandchild, such as teaching them to ride a bike, is easy and enjoyable for both parties. To engage young adults, aim to engage them in activities and earn their trust. (Biba Kayewich)

Interacting with a 5-year-old grandchild is usually pretty basic. You slip them some treats, you teach them to ride a bike, and you tell them you love them. It’s sweet, easy, and enjoyable.

To engage teens and young adults requires a different skill set. You must first earn their respect, and that only comes through relationship.

Suppose your granddaughter, a college junior home for the holidays, has hit the skids. Her grades are down, she looks as if she could use some sunshine, and at family gatherings she spends most of the time in a corner on the sofa, poking away at her phone. You might ask her if she’s all right, but unless that relationship is strong, all you’re likely to get in return is a shrug and a muttered, “I’m fine.”

Discard that direct approach. Instead, invite that granddaughter into your kitchen to do some baking and cooking. Take her out shopping or out to supper at a restaurant. When she returns to school, give her a call on a regular basis.

This tactic of building trust and mutual respect applies across the board. If you’re a supervisor, for example, and you want to have an impact on a younger employee, then show an interest in him. Ask about his aspirations and his life outside of work. When possible, collaborate rather than dictate.

Presence is everything in building relationships. The confidences will come later and in a natural way.

Listening Comes First

A friend of mine discovered that all of her younger co-workers had friends who were in therapy. Now, some of those friends undoubtedly have deep-seated issues, but most of them are probably looking for a listener, someone who will hear them without judgment or dismissal. We may be living in the great age of communication, but given the scale of loneliness cited above, apparently, a whole lot of people, old as well as young, have no one to listen to them.

So to reiterate: Be present. Listen. Don’t interrupt and don’t judge. Ask questions. Think before you speak.

Our country has lots of walls right now. Seniors, millennials, and the Gen Z crew can knock down some of these barricades, learn and grow together, and have some fun in the bargain.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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