Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Connecting Generations with Understanding, Respect and Play

I have been thinking a lot about connections between generations. In the past 6 weeks, I have spoken with Elly Katz from Sages and Seekers, Avery and Eleanor, two high school students who founded The Young Women’s Forum at their school, and Sky Bergman, documentary filmmaker of Lives Well Lived and founder of an Intergenerational Project Connecting Generations.

I have also spoken with my grandchildren, ages 18-13, and each of them have different personalities and different outlooks on their lives. What I have realized from all of these conversations is:

  • Not all children have access to older adults.
  • Not all older adults have access to young people.
  • The lack of access breeds the development of stereotypes and lack of understanding between the generations.
  • Lack of understanding feeds into the ageist ideas the generations have about each other.

There are some ways to break down these barriers and build connections between generations. I am going to share four ideas with you. Before I do, let’s talk about why this might be important.

Finding commonality

I have been very fortunate. I had my paternal grandparents in my life for most of my childhood. My parents were active and involved for as long as it was possible. I have had positive role models of aging. Many young people see commercials and cartoons depicting old people as bent over, infirm, grey-haired shells of what they may have once been. No one wants to strive for that kind of old age. Without access to thriving older adults, that is the predominant image the young people see.

I also am fortunate to have regular contact with my 4 grandchildren. I ask them about text protocol (no punctuation necessary). I learn about the latest teen idols. I hear their dreams for their future.

There are many young people that do not have grandparents. Many young peole are not comfortable talking with older adults because they do not feel understood. Loneliness is epidemic among teens and elders alike.

There are many older people living alone. There are many older people who have strained relationships with their families. They hear in the media about teens being obsessed with their devices. They hear that the younger generation has no loyalty to work. They form opinions about young people as different from them, and the result is reverse ageism.

Of course, the stereotypes of ageism are not new. Our parents did not understand our music or boys with long hair. Their parents did not understand the big band music of their era. But when you look deeper, we are all human beings living different life experiences, and we share many things in common. We all want to be loved. We all want to be respected. We all want to be heard. We all want to feel safe.

With that commonality in mind, let’s talk about how we might build some bridges to understand each other.

1. Where and what are the opportunities?

 There are many opportunities for intergenerational connection. Is the cashier at your grocery story or pharmacy a young person? Smile at them. Ask them if they are having a good day. It is the start of a connection.

If you have grandchildren that do not live close by, you could consider scheduling a regular time to call. Try Facetime or Zoom so that you can see each other. I have a friend who reads a bedtime story to her niece on a regular basis, via Facetime.

You could seek out opportunities to volunteer with different generations. Volunteer with Sages and Seekers and become a Sage to a younger person. In 8 weeks, you will build a relationship and increase understanding.

Opportunities to volunteer can be found in many different locations, such as hospitals, schools, and community centers.

Go to where you can download the discussion guide and some questions you might use when you are venturing into connection with a younger or older person.

2. Be open to learning and listening

 It is important to remember that intergenerational connection is not a one-way street. Everyone has something to learn from each other, regardless of age. In order to foster meaningful intergenerational connection, it is important to listen to and appreciate the perspectives of different generations, while also sharing your own experiences and thoughts. Eleanor and Avery, the high school students, told me that their biggest desire was to be heard. They wanted the adults around them to listen to their thoughts, feelings, concerns and fears.

Be mindful and present when in conversation with different generations and be open to the perspectives they have to offer. We all have life experiences that have shaped us.

As Boomers we experienced the assassination of two Kennedy’s, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the death of other civil rights leaders. We lived through the Vietnam War.

Gen Z, those ages 11 – 23, have lived through Covid isolation, rising gun violence, an insurrection on our Capital, the fears around climate change.

We all have experiences that shape us, and we need to be open to listening to people from other generations without judgement. Listen with empathy and a desire to understand.

3. Find inspiration from family members and others

Sky Bergman was inspired by her 103-year-old grandmother. I was inspired by my parents who stayed active and pursued their goals even in their later years. Sky is also being inspired by the 14 other social entrepreneurs who are part of the CoGenerate Innovation Fellowship. This fellowship brings together older and younger people to address issues such as climate change and social isolation.

Finding inspiration from family members and others is a way to build bonds between generations. This can go both ways. We normally look at our elders as role models. What would it be like for you to look at your children or grandchildren as inspiration? They are navigating work, school, responsibilities, fears and a constant stream of data unlike anything that we dealt with. How do they do it? Why not let them know that you respect them and admire them?

It might seem funny to use the word inspiration in a step to build connection between generations. It really makes sense. We want to be around people that inspire us, where we can feel uplifted. Connecting with family with authenticity will open doors you never knew existed.

We see what we look for. Look for inspiration in family and friends.

4. Play

I think that sometimes we are too serious. There are many serious issues that are crying for us to pay attention. As parents or grandparents, we get into the habit of asking questions like, “how is your job?” “how is school?”

Those may be important questions, but they don’t build bonds. The questions that open a conversation build bonds. Last night I was out to dinner with my grandkids and their parents. I asked them, “what are you most proud of in your life?” Some of their answers were silly and some were sincere. Listening without judgement, laughing at the silly answers and nodding understanding at the sincere answers just felt right. My grandson “charmed” us with corny jokes and a very difficult riddle. It was fun and light, and everyone felt comfortable.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

~ George Bernard Shaw

I want to end with one last quote. This sums up what we all want. Thank you, Mr. Rogers.

“Whether we’re a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.”

― Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

I’d love to hear how you apply some of these ideas to get to connect with other generations.

Leave me a comment on how it went for you or drop any questions you want me to answer!

6 thoughts on “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Connecting Generations with Understanding, Respect and Play

  1. Excellent blog, Wendy-you nailed it! I am always looking for new opportunities to connect with different generations-the results have been amazing, inspiring and life changing. What I’ve learned is we do have differences for sure; but when you take the time to really get to know someone of another generation, you find out you are a lot more alike than you thought!

  2. I agree it is important to connect with the different generations and I enjoy doing so whenever I can. Though I have the desire to connect with my nieces and nephews since I do not see them often. i have tried the specific questions planned ahead prior to a visit where they will be present. I still get short answers and the interest on their end is low. I feel disconnected from them and wish they would think of me and reach out sometimes, but they do not. Having been a teacher in my 20’s, and able to get through to 8 and 9 year olds, it is disappointing I can’t with my family. Not having children myself and no grandchildren either, my nieces and nephews are mostly generation Z. I have a friend who does not have kids and she is very close to her nieces and they call her for advice or check on her. How lucky is she to have that connection. She bonded with them young. I had not so much since they did not live close. Anway, I connect with all ages and have several good friends and my friends are more family to me than my real family. One of The Beatles song-, Will you still need me, will you still love me when I am 64? Well, I am passed that this year, and wonder who will that be exactly for me?

    1. Josephine, sometimes connecting with family is harder. They expect that we will judge them or somehow be “too” involved. I understand that it hurts though. You never know how things might evolve as they get older. Patience, kindness and interest may break through at some point. Meanwhile, try reaching out to young people through volunteering. You might find a special connection there.

  3. Wendy, I appreciate your point about inspiration as a key to intergenerational connection. What a great idea to think of younger generations as role models (and not just in their ability to use tech tools)! My niece and my college students are more accepting of differences — racial, gender, religious — than I was taught to be, while being less accepting of injustice and more willing to call it out. I find those attitudes inspiring and hopeful.

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