What age are you?

My address today offers reflection on the value of socialising, building friendships, forging relationships, and working with others who are older or younger in years than each of us. A sociologist might refer to intergenerational connection and point out the potential advantages of social, emotional and vocational connection across generations. Put more simply, I am making the case for the benefits and likely gains of ‘hanging out’ with those beyond your immediate age group.
          There is a lot of evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that we all benefit from being in the company of people who are different ages to us, who are younger than us, who are older than us. We can learn from them, be inspired by them, be frightened by them, derive love and affection from them. And they from us also; it is of course a two-way flow of benefit.
          My thoughts here are prompted by two things that happened to me in the past year. The first will probably appear to you all as an onset of paranoia. However, over the last five years, I found I was increasingly finding myself in the company and presence of people that I am, now inelegantly, describing as older people. Men with grey hair, and sometimes grey beards. Woman of the same uncertain age. Whenever my wife Rita and I went into a restaurant, such people were also there. When we went to the theatre, such people also followed us there. I was perplexed.
          But five years ago, I formally retired from a wonderful 35 years of teaching and working in a third level institution. There I worked with students and colleagues of all ages from 17 to 70. No particular age group or cohort was pre-eminent – not even students, as my work often involved engagement with mature, world savvy, learners. Interaction and communication across all age groups in this university environment seemed perfectly natural. On retirement, I no longer had access to this diversity of age groups.
          And then one day last year, as I crossed the threshold of my Biblical three score years and ten, I looked in the mirror and saw that I had - just like many of those older people who had been following me about over the past five years - grey hair and a grey beard. I had not found my tribe. Rather they had found me, indeed found me out. And I resolved to be more proactive in connecting and communicating across generations into the future.
          The second incident, prompting my thoughts here this morning, fills me with a certain sense of shame. Late last year, I was chatting with someone who is a friend, and a teacher to me. She was describing somewhat tetchily how her daughter, who was in her second year in a Dublin university, was shirking some domestic duties and had been reluctant to take up a lucrative part-time local job opportunity.
          ‘Sounds to me like she is a snowflake’, came my mischievous comment. Now calling someone a snowflake is not nice. Here is how Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia, defines the word. ‘‘Snowflake’ is a 2010s derogatory slang term for a person, implying that they have an inflated sense of uniqueness, an unwarranted sense of entitlement, or are overly-emotional, easily offended, and unable to deal with opposing opinions. Common usages include the terms ‘special snowflake’, ‘Generation Snowflake, and ‘snowflake’ as a politicised insult.’ Wow, what had I done? Another old foggy calling out a young millennial as she tries to come to terms with an adult world.
          My sense of anxiety, and shame, for my name-calling, was further compounded a few weeks later when I read a book review by the journalist Fintan O’Toole of Sally Rooney’s new novel entitled Beautiful World: Where Are You. O’Toole argues that Rooney is the novelist who speaks for the millennial generation, i.e., those young people now in their twenties and thirties. I quote: ‘Sally Rooney is regarded, not without reason, as the novelist who best expresses the lives of those born into the western middle class in the 1990s. They are, like Rooney herself, turning 30. They live in a very 21st-century world of precarious employment, rampant consumerism, inadequate housing, fluid sexuality, social-media saturation, instant celebrity and the existential dread of the climate crisis.’ Wow again.
          This is some burden that millennials are carrying. When I was turning 30, employment was indeed precarious, and consumerism was starting to ramp up. But housing was adequate, sexuality was not yet fluid, the echo chambers of social media did not exist, celebrity was only a phenomenon to be found in Hollywood, and a climate crisis only affected those who wore sandals in wintertime. And here was I calling a millennial a snowflake…
          Serendipitously, I met up with this snowflake before Christmas. I found that she was attending the same university that I had gone to, was studying broadly the same subjects, and was experiencing much the same challenges, disappointments, and anxieties that I had experienced in my first years in college. Only I felt this young woman was engaging with them, and overcoming them, in a way I had not 50 years earlier. Much was learnt from our conversation, including some words of advice that might usefully be passed on to my two grandchildren should they decide to pursue third level education. And thankfully, and with great relief, I also learnt that her mother had not related to her my snowflake gibe.
          So these are my recent entanglements across the chasms of age and generational difference that occasioned the actual title of this address. What age are you? This is not meant to be asked in any inquisitorial way, but as an encouragement to you to think about age difference and how a broader age inclusiveness could benefit the way we live our lives. In other words, consider hanging out with others beyond or outside those who are your immediate age peers or contemporaries.
          There is compelling scientific evidence to indicate the value of doing just this. In his 2018 book, entitled: How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, by Marc Freedman, an American psychologist, syntheses much empirical research to explore the benefits of intergenerational connection. Freedman contends that when younger and older connect, the intergenerational relationships built, are a route to positive outcomes in early life, and a key to happiness and well-being in an adult’s later years.
          The significant benefits of a caring adult mentor on children’s well-being have been emphasised in study after study. The adage that all a child needs to flourish is the unconditional love of one adult has been proven. Stable interactions with older people matter in young people’s development. But, you may ask, what do older adults gain from relationships with young people? Freedman points to the seminal Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began tracking more than 1000 people eighty years ago and continues to this day. Of the study’s findings, one is pre-eminent: relationships are the critical ingredient in well-being, particularly as we age. And this connection is facilitated, not only by bonds with partners and peers, but also by ties spanning generations.
          The Harvard study highlights the importance of what psychologists call ‘generativity’. Generativity means investing in, caring for, and developing the next generation, intuitively as a way of ensuring the long-term survival of the human species. Intergenerational volunteering to promote the well-being of younger generations is an example, and is proven to be good for older people’s mental and physical health. Indeed, the Harvard study finds that older adults who do so are three times as likely to be happy as those who do not.
          Freedman concludes in his book: ‘Today, an accumulating body of research on purpose, generativity, relationships, and face-to-face contact suggests that engagement with others that flows down the generational chain is likely to make you healthier, happier, and probably live longer.’
          Rosita Boland is a journalist of many decades’ standing with the Irish Times. She recently wrote a piece entitled ‘Age shouldn’t matter when it comes to friendships’ in which she celebrates longstanding friendships with four people, two considerably older, and two considerably younger than her. She writes warmly of how these friends have enhanced her life over a long period.
          I quote her. ‘There is no rule that says our most important friendships all have to be only with those people we happened to meet in school or at college: people of our own age. Of course I have plenty of other friends who are my vintage, and those are relationships to also treasure, but for different reasons. But I cherish those friendships with people both older and younger. They have made my life so much richer. So here’s to ‘age fluidity’ in all our friendships.’
          On the face of it, the family as a unit offers a wonderful exemplar of intergenerational connection. A Sunday lunch with three or four generations of a family in attendance is an image beloved of painters, novelists, musicians, and indeed sociologists. However, it can be argued that the cross-generational dynamic within the family is different from that between the family and the wider municipality. The family at times can be inward-looking, overly hierarchical, and lacking in civic spirit. So, by all means we must celebrate family relationships across the generations, but we must also cross the threshold of the family into the wider public arena of work, sports, places of entertainment, schools, churches all the building blocks of a healthy community and an inclusive society. It is here that the potential value of bonds and ties along the generational chain are usefully nurtured.
          A final point to be made about connection across the generations alludes to the quality of empathy. The ability to understand another person’s perspective is challenging. The capacity to sympathise with another’s experience and anxieties is demanding. There is a need to walk a mile in their shoes, no matter how difficult. And while empathy is always key in establishing and maintaining relationships with our peers and contemporaries, a case can be made that this quality becomes more important across the generations.
          To conclude, here is a verse from a song that exhibits warm and magical empathy on the part of two Liverpudlians in their late twenties, imagining enduring love into the sixties of their life.


          You’ll be older too
          And if you say the word
          I could stay with you.
          I could be handy, mending a fuse
          When your lights have gone
          You can knit a sweater by the fireside
          Sunday mornings go for a ride
          Doing the garden, digging the weeds
          Who could ask for more.
          Will you still need me, will you still feed me
          When I’m sixty-four.

Aiden O’Drescoll
Address to the Dublin Unitarian Church congregation January 2022


Cover