Michael Kennedy: The Need for Inter-generational Friendships

When one thinks of their friends and their most lasting friendships, they often think of someone their own age. However, there lies great personal and political possibility in intergenerational friendships. Often, intergenerational relationships or programs are conceived as care-giving models that are meant to help older people socialize and function. Such thinking is problematic in that it diminishes the agency of older adults and doesn’t recognize the contributions they can give to younger people. By focusing on similarities and differences between young (14-25) and senior (65+) populations, I hope to demonstrate how a more inclusive model of friendship can address major cross-generational health and political issues.

Loneliness- Not Just a Senior Issue

While social isolation and loneliness have been long-term issues for members of the senior community, there is increasing proof that young generations of teenagers are facing an epidemic of loneliness. A recent piece released by NPR shares the findings of a recent Cigna study. “The latest survey also found something surprising about loneliness in the younger generation. ‘Our survey found that actually the younger generation was lonelier than the older generations,’ says Dr. Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna.”[i] Specialists find that the expansion of virtual social networking can contribute to younger generations’ sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction with their social activity. A national study published in November of 2017 found a link between adolescents’ depressive symptoms and mental health issues with increased time on social media.[ii] The study found that, overall, those with more in-person interaction found themselves less lonely.

While electronic mediums of communication can increase one’s accessibility to their friends and keep people connected over distance, it also introduces additional pressures for the younger generation. For one, platforms like Facebook and Twitter increase the saliency of social capital, a form of cultural capital gained by being perceived as important or “cool” by a community or group of peers. Competition over social capital is measured statistically by “likes” and “shares” of posts. Anxiety, depression, and loneliness can increase in an environment where one feels in competition with others for social capital. The fact that Facebook primarily tracks the impact of posts through its numbers of “likes” means that having “friends” who see your posts are the ones directly in charge of that social capital competition. This type of relationship to others in the realm of social media holds the potential to shape friendships of utility.

Mark Vernon’s chapter on “Friending Online” in his book The Meaning of Friendship delves into how younger generations’ difference in socializing is introducing them to new challenges. While I discussed issues of social capital and competition as sources of alienation, over-dependence on social media is also making it difficult for people to cope with the non-virtual space. He cites the work of sociologist Sherry Turkle and her worry that “the internet is transforming human psychology, creating what she calls a ‘tethered self’- one that is dependent upon being wired, and feels most intimate when relationships are mediated by machines.”[iii] Vernon doesn’t claim that the psychology of the latest generation is totally different, as all generations have experienced new forms of technology that have shaped their relations to one another. However, the concern is that in a far-more interconnected virtual world, people are losing their sense of being alone. Less time to self-reflect and an increased ability to distract ourselves means it will be more difficult for people to address personal issues in a healthy way.

Communal Association Doesn’t Solve Loneliness

Just as with social media, the amount of people that exist in your local social network or community doesn’t exactly correlate with feeling less lonely. In a 2009 geriatric study of loneliness of community-dwelling elders in Ireland, it was found that the integration of social community didn’t necessarily correlate with decreased loneliness. Of those studies, “roughly 20% of the prevalence of depressed mood in the population was associated with non-integrated social network, and in those with such a network, 40% of their risk of depression was attributable to their social network.”[iv] Such scientific findings challenge the conceptions that connectivity to social networks-both in the technological and communal sense-makes people happier. In some cases, they have the adverse effect, making people lonelier and more depressed.

The presence of communities isn’t enough, it’s the types of relationships that are fostered within those community that impact sense of self. General American cultural knowledge recognizes how bullying and antagonism exists within the school environment for children and teenagers. These aren’t only issues for minors, but amongst senior citizens. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discusses trends of bullying that takes place in senior living communities:

“Robin Bonifas, a social work professor at Arizona State University and author of the book Bullying Among Older Adults: How to Recognize and Address an Unseen Epidemic, said existing studies suggest about 1 in 5 seniors encounters bullying. She sees it as an outgrowth of frustrations characteristic in communal settings, as well a reflection of issues unique to getting older. Many elderly see their independence and sense of control disappear and, for some, becoming a bully can feel like regaining some of that lost power.”[v]

These academic conclusions make us realize that the issue of loneliness is not just one of accessibility to community. Rather, it is related to the types of relationships that are formed and sustained in social networks. These studies and case examples demonstrate that loneliness is an issue across generations. This is one case for the importance of intergenerational friendships.

The Tribune article on bullying among older adults featured the story of Marsha Wetzel, who currently lives in a senior apartment complex not far from my home in Chicago. She moved into the community after her partner of 30 years passed away and her partner’s family evicted her from the home they shared. When she moved into the new community after her heartbreaking loss, she faced horrible bullying from senior residents for being a lesbian. She doesn’t complain about the other people in the piece, but she expresses how the bullying affected her self-perception, “I just felt like a slug, like I was nothing, like I wasn’t even human… I felt like a person in a pool of piranhas.”[vi]

Younger generations have a better understanding of LGBTQ identities; people at Oberlin are by and large not just tolerating but accepting and loving of its community members. Our generation understands the importance of communities to promote self-sustainability, self-affirmation, and love for and amongst queer people. Generational differences do have a strong impact on people’s values and worldview. However, it is tragic that people assume these generational worldviews are static and that older people can feel they were born in the wrong time. If discourses, models, and communities of support exist for LGBTQ youth, why doesn’t Marsha have access to those worldviews that can help her love herself? She is in need of a friend!

Economic Anxieties Across Age Groups

Despite their difference in age, young adults and senior citizens also share some similar positioning in the global economy. Todd May, a political philosopher, is especially interested in the pressures of neoliberal thinking and how to overcome them. In his book Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism, he explains how the neoliberal economy has shaped people’s self-understanding. “… the issue for individuals is no longer whether they are normal, but whether they are participants in the market, whether they are in or out. And, since market rationality is central to neoliberalism, the market becomes spread across our lives. Not only our economic but also our political, social, and personal relationships all become markets, and we better and worse participants in those markets.”[vii]

Senior citizens are in comparable relations to the market as young adults in high school, college, or just entering the workforce. In a capitalist system, all are judged by their output. Many retirees share feelings of shame, feeling they don’t earn their pay (if they have social security) and that they don’t have a job title, responsibility, or brand association to take pride in.[viii] Young adults don’t have much of their own capital to participate in the market. However, the contributions of their family can create a class/consumer status that contributes to identity. Markers of class status are exercised especially during school-age years through clothes and accessories. Of those young adults who have jobs, they begin in entry-level positions where they can feel under-utilized and forced to take on menial tasks. The market creates a competitive mindset and devalues those who do not or cannot contribute to the market.

May argues that young people and the elderly have developed relationships that fail to solve these market anxieties. Drawing upon Aristotelian trio of friendships, friendships of usefulness exist amongst the elderly and friendships of pleasure amongst the young- neither of which encompass genuine friendship. May explains, “This is because the elderly, being frail, are often in need of the kind of benefits conferred by friendships of usefulness. On the other hand, friendships of pleasure are more common among the young, who have not yet developed the maturity to move beyond seeking pleasurable experiences.”[ix] Neither of these relationships are genuine friendships in that they care more about what the friend offers than about the friend themselves. May argues that even though people face economic anxieties over the lack to contribute, they continue to value the other through the pleasure or usefulness they generate, upholding a value system based on output.

While there is a broad range of scholarship that theorizes friendship as the solution to these anxieties and loneliness, friendship is not often considered in cross-generational terms. Rather than friendship broadly as a solution, we must interrogate why friendships are more often amongst peer groups in the first place.

Why Don’t We See Intergenerational Friendships?

One of the problems in modern conceptions of friendship is that American society doesn’t promote friendships of difference. Contemporary philosophers have critiqued various notions of friendship as being exclusive to “equals” as well as redefining friendships to avoid unjust or manipulative hierarchies. Sibyl Schwarzenbach is one of the most innovative scholars expanding upon understandings of the core elements of friendship to explain the prevalence and importance of diverse friendships. Schwarzenbach compares the Greek concept of philia to the contemporary notion of friendship, finding that philia is a more inclusive term that captures a broader range of positive relationships. She writes that philia “is broader and captures what certain different types of positive relationships all possess in common. Philia includes not only the best parent child relations, for example, but also the good relations between siblings, friends, lovers, and even between fellow citizens…”[x]

Currently, relationships between elderly and non-elderly are more recognized as “care”-based relationships, not friendships. While care is important and can be carried out with love and good intent, it establishes assumptions that are problematic. For one, care-giving relationships are formulated as one-sided, with the care-giver providing for an elder without reciprocation. The agency of the elder is diminished based on their limited ability or concern for health. Care-giving is assumed as an act of sympathy, a familial duty, or a compensated position. As Schwarzenbach argues, an emotion-based care is not all-embracing as philia and it carries connotations that ignores the agency of older people. However, modern notions of friendship have also failed to include intergenerational friendships.

Schwarzenbach finds that one issue in modern notions of friendship is that they assume friends have to be similar in most aspects of identity and preferences. Such a construction eliminates the possibility for friendship amongst people with uncontrollable differences, such as race, class, and age. She argues that scholars have misinterpreted the role of equality in friendships, and this has led to defining friendship in exclusive terms. Under contemporary terms, “genuine ‘friendship’ becomes opposed to a myriad of other relationships with which it actually has much in common: the best relationships between men and women… or the good relations parents can have with their children, as well as from all those special relations between dissimilars: in age, gender, class, religion, race or culture.[xi] As Schwarzenbach recognizes, when people think of friendship, they usually associate the term with people like themselves in identity. It is difficult to form friendships with people who are dissimilar in age, if one’s definition of friendship is not inclusive enough to include friends who are different.

Having mentioned age, the author not only recognizes the meaningfulness of intergenerational relationships but offers a framework that will better incorporate them as genuine friendships. Rather than establishing friendships based on individuals’ equal-ness or similarity, Schwarzenbach proposes friendships of difference in which the goal is to bring equality amongst themselves. As she explains in her piece, these relationships are not only meaningful but transformative. Out of genuine care for the other person, friendships for equality encompass the political positivity of “solidarity” and “fraternity” while going against the hierarchical models they exist upon. These relationships of difference also allow individuals to use their differences to help the other person. For example, a young able person can do more physical tasks to help an older person, while the elder can share lessons and guidance for the younger of how to navigate adulthood.

Because people of different age groups have considered themselves as different and friendships are not encouraged between them, preconceptions of people across age groups have been shaped by generational stereotypes. A 2011 study by AchieveGlobal, Inc. studied the prevalence of age-based stereotypes globally, with a focus on their impact in the workspace. In their scientific study they found that the higher the level of the employee, the greater the influence of age stereotypes on the perception of other generations.[xii] While this study is limited to workplace environments, of its suggestions in combatting ageism is to collaborate with cross-generational teams. This study alludes to some of the conclusions drawn by Schwarzenbach. The researchers suggest, “Most of us prefer to spend time with people like ourselves, including those of similar age. Working across generations helps realize the tremendous value of diverse perspectives, which often spark creativity and innovation. Your daily effort to offer and ask for help builds strong connections among age groups and makes everyone’s job easier.”[xiii] Relationships are key to improving quality of life for all parties.

Positive Implications for Civic Friendship

One of Schwarzenbach’s major contributions to the field of friendship studies is her idea of civic friendship. She argues that friendships of difference are necessary for successfully carrying out the project of democracy. In a globalized world, there is more interaction amongst more people of various national, racial, ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexual, and other backgrounds. While differences are often thought of as creating antagonisms, Schwarzenbach argues friendships of difference are part of a civic project trying to create equality amongst people in a productive and genuine way. She argues, “only this model of aiming to maintain a rough equality in the midst of change and difference, can explain many deep and life-long friendships—perhaps impossible in the Ancient world – between persons of vastly different ages, of different genders, and between those from diverse cultures, classes and ethnic groups. But such relationships have become a vital part of the modern democratic multi-cultural world.”[xiv]

As I’ve written in my previous piece, “The Gap in American Political Philosophy and an Ethical Return,” there are compelling arguments that friendship is a vital component that could strengthen American democratic practices. Positive relationships between people across generations in the U.S. is often overlooked. Instead age groups are often politicized in an antagonistic way, specifically around issues of Social Security and Medicare. To frame such social programs as a special interest of the older population assumes that American society as a whole doesn’t value the care and well-being of senior citizens. Beyond specific policy issues, there is also a broader trend of opposing political philosophies across age groups.

In American politics, one of the largest political ideological gaps is between the young and the elderly. The lack of interaction, conversation, and friendship across different generations has contributed to a growing ideological split between the youngest and oldest generation of Americans. A Pew Research Center study from March of 2017 reported that “The generation gap in American politics is dividing two younger age groups, Millennials and Generation X, from the two older groups, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation.”[xv] The study found that trends of political differences were growing, with millennials increasingly identifying as liberal Democrats and more Baby Boomers identifying as conservative Republicans. In the political realm, these differences are thought as of “natural” due to long-term trends. However, growing political polarization may be based upon less interaction amongst people from groups and political opinions of them being shaped by stereotypes.

Fostering an understanding of friendship and an approach that can bring together the young and old as friends is beyond their interests of health; it is good for the health of our democracy. While discussing the political is difficult, especially when talking to someone who is against your values, without communication or relationships, there is no expecting these divisions to change. Younger generations have access to a different education than their parents or their grandparents. It will take a new approach of thinking for older generations to approach the younger ones as equals and to be willing to learn from them. Likewise, younger people should take elders and their beliefs seriously. It is a difficult challenge to have friends with polarizing political views. However, through the approach of a friendship of difference, there lies a greater possibility of transformative worldview that practices equality.

While friendships are often thought as amongst solely peers, this conception rests too much on problematic notions of friendship of similarity. Across age groups, loneliness, bullying, and anxiety can be exacerbated by social networks. Rather, a new more-inclusive understanding of friendship must be adopted. Schwarzenbach’s conception of friendships of difference establishes an approach to others across age groups that can benefit individual health as well as improve communication and consensus in the larger political community.

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[i] Rhitu Chatterjee, “Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden.” National Public Radio, May 1, 2018. Web. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden.

[ii] Jean M. Twenge, et al. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents after 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Pyschological Science, Volume 6:1, November 14, 2017. Web. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617723376.

[iii] Mark Vernon, The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillon: 2005) 105-106.

[iv] Golden, Jeannette et al., “Loneliness, social support networks, mood and wellbeing in community-dwelling elderly.” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2009; 24: 699.

[v] Matt Sedensky, “Senior centers house a surprising number of bullies.” The Chicago Tribune, May 12, 2018. Web. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-senior-centers-bullying-20180512-story.html.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Lexington Books: 2012) 33.

[viii] Robert Laura, “Overcoming Mental Challenges Your First Year of Retirement.” Forbes, May 30, 2014. Web. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertlaura/2014/05/30/overcoming-mental-challenges-in-your-first-year-of-retirement/#6d692c264159.

[ix] May, 60.

[x] Sibil Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, solidarity and civic friendship.” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies (2015) 3:1, 8.

[xi] Ibid, 8.

[xii] Chris Blauth et al., “Age-Based Stereotypes: Silent Killer of Collaboration and Productivity.” AchieveGlobal, 2011. Web. https://www.rpi.edu/dept/hr/docs/Age-Based%20Stereotypes.pdf.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Schwarzenbach, 10.

[xv] Shiva Maniam and Samantha Smith, “A wider partisan and ideological gap between younger, older generations.” Pew Research Center, March 20, 2017. Web. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/20/a-wider-partisan-and-ideological-gap-between-younger-older-generations/.

Works Cited

Chris Blauth et al., “Age-Based Stereotypes: Silent Killer of Collaboration and Productivity.” AchieveGlobal, 2011. Web. https://www.rpi.edu/dept/hr/docs/Age-Based%20Stereotypes.pdf.

Rhitu Chatterjee, “Americans Are A Lonely Lot, And Young People Bear The Heaviest Burden.” National Public Radio, May 1, 2018. Web. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/05/01/606588504/americans-are-a-lonely-lot-and-young-people-bear-the-heaviest-burden.

Jeannette Golden et al., “Loneliness, social support networks, mood and wellbeing in community-dwelling elderly.” International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2009; 24: 699.

Robert Laura, “Overcoming Mental Challenges Your First Year of Retirement.” Forbes, May 30, 2014. Web. https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertlaura/2014/05/30/overcoming-mental-challenges-in-your-first-year-of-retirement/#6d692c264159.

Shiva Maniam and Samantha Smith, “A wider partisan and ideological gap between younger, older generations.” Pew Research Center, March 20, 2017. Web. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/20/a-wider-partisan-and-ideological-gap-between-younger-older-generations/.

Todd May, Friendship in an Age of Economics: Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism (Lexington Books: 2012)

Sibil Schwarzenbach, “Fraternity, solidarity and civic friendship.” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies (2015) 3:1.

Matt Sedensky, “Senior centers house a surprising number of bullies.” The Chicago Tribune, May 12, 2018. Web. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-senior-centers-bullying-20180512-story.html.

Jean M. Twenge, et al. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents after 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Pyschological Science, Volume 6:1, November 14, 2017. Web. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617723376.

Mark Vernon, The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillon: 2005)