Let’s burst the age bubble – and bring the generations together | Anne Karpf

We’ve heard a lot over the past few years about people living in bubbles, and yet one major bubble seems to have escaped comment – the age bubble. Last month, though, Peter Fonagy, professor of contemporary psychoanalysis and developmental science at UCL, warned that the digital world was reducing contact between the generations. Young people, he argued, were increasingly being socialised by their peer group rather than adults, with potentially damaging consequences.

Of course there are times when only a member of one’s own age group will do: if you’ve had a baby, for example, the only person obsessing as much about the absorbency of nappies is likely to be another new parent. And one of the tasks of teendom is to free oneself from one’s parents, at least some of the time.

But the extent to which we now live, work and socialise exclusively with those roughly our own age goes far beyond these milestone moments and locks us into age ghettos in an unprecedented way. This dwindling of intergenerational contact is deeply impoverishing, and yet suggest challenging it and you’ll almost always hear about schemes that benefit older people – how they flourish by having four-year-olds in old people’s homes, for example – and not how enriching it is for the child, teenager or millennial to be in regular contact with older people.

If you move out of the age ghetto, though, the business of growing older can become much less scary. This isn’t because you meet a 90-year-old marathon-runner or an 80-year-old model who makes you realise – hey presto! – that age is a mirage (Ashton Applewhite, in her rousing manifesto against ageism This Chair Rocks, calls images of “supergeezers” like this “inspiration porn”). No, it’s because getting to know older people teaches you that they don’t constitute a monolithic, homogenous group, any more than young people do – on the contrary, we become more different from each other as we age rather than more similar. Such encounters replace our stereotyped image of an older person (summed up by the elderly-person-crossing sign that implies that they all have impaired mobility – shouldn’t this be replaced by one warning about people texting while walking?) with that of an individual. You start to see beyond age, in the same way as the disability movement urges people to see beyond the disability.

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Girls with mobile phones

‘Young people, Professor Peter Fonagy argues, are increasingly being socialised by their peer group rather than adults, with potentially damaging consequences.’ Photograph: Getty Images/Westend61

But intergenerational contact can do more than break down stereotypes. A 2009 US study found that it was especially valuable for vulnerable or at-risk young people to either supplement the support that they already receive at home or compensate for its lack with contact from a non-parental adult. And a Stanford Center on Longevity report has argued that older people are a flourishing human resource just waiting to be tapped to make a key contribution to the lives of young people.

Such an adult doesn’t have to be a formal mentor, although sometimes they are. The US programme Friends of the Children pairs six-year-old children in foster care with a salaried adult mentor for 12½ years with excellent results.

The value of such contact isn’t confined to fostered children. My life was hugely enhanced when I was in my 20s by meeting two members of the radical, multigenerational US anti-ageist group Gray Panthers. What a relief to discover that not everyone becomes conservative as they grow older. I’ve cultivated cross-generational friendships ever since.

When young people have sustained contact with those older than themselves, they also get some sense of the arc of life, that they too will age. They are surely then more likely to see through the “all older people are wealthy” media narrative and lobby for proper provision for older people, their future selves.

Age apartheid makes stereotypers of us all, so all older people come to be seen as tech-averse and young people tech-savvy. But bubbles, come to think of it, are transparent and can be pricked. The age one needs to burst now.

Anne Karpf is author of How to Age


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