“OK, Boomer.”

Those two words mark the shot heard ‘round the world in the supposed generational war between American Millennials and Baby Boomers. Whether that’s evidence of war or just the inherent friction between children and parents since our ancestors stood upright, it certainly put generational frictions in the headlines. As each generation comes of age and into its own agency, there are public displays of wishing that the aging generation still clinging to social, economic and political power would relinquish, hand over the reins and “go gentle into that good night”.

That’s one version of intergenerational dynamics. Here’s another version:

A generation rich in life experience and with available free time supports the frenetically busy personal and professional lives of younger adults and their children, and in turn is buoyed up by personal interactions, with a plethora of benefits for everyone involved.

Those benefits of intergenerational connection are myriad – but three immediately spring to mind.

Older adults are at risk of social isolation. Often living only around people their own age – a spouse or partner at home, or fellow residents in a senior living arrangement – older adults quite simply have less exposure to people outside of their own age group. Interacting positively with other generations pulls them out of isolation, triggers important brain activity that improves cognitive functioning and gives them a better quality of life. Plus, in the words of Viktor Frankl, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”

In addition, younger adults often live in “the left lane of life”, where peak professional activity and personal demands of raising a family overlap. That daily dance can include rousing and transporting children, performing at a high level at work all day, keeping everyone fed and clothed, medical appointments, volunteer activities, youth sports, piano lessons, then perhaps one’s own hobbies or peer relationships if there’s time left over. Trust the author on this one. They also need mentors in all parts of their lives, not just professionally.

Of course, children are also shaped by their relationships with adults – and not only by their parents. When children are exposed to older adults, they tend to engage less often in stereotyping – and several studies have shown that both their relationships with their parents and classroom behavior improve. The greater the number of caring, engaged adults a child has in their life, the more resilient and adaptable they become as an adult. Every adult and interaction counts.

 

It’s also important to name this: When individuals from any generation face additional hardships such as racial inequity, poverty, violence, housing instability, medical fragility, mental illness, addiction or other adversities, all of those risk factors get multiplied. Older adults are even more isolated. Younger adults are working multiple jobs, couch-surfing or surviving without reliable transportation. As a result, children are sometimes caught in the fray, left without the healthy interactions they need to grow and thrive.

This age of coronavirus-prompted stay-at-home orders is putting us all to the test. We are all socially isolated in ways most of us have never experienced before – and we also need each other more than ever. For those of us with the privilege and means to stay connected electronically, there are anew opportunities to enrich each other’s lives. Video chat technologies such as FaceTime, Zoom and Skype have brought us visually closer during this time of unforeseen isolation. Even the humble telephone has suddenly found a renewed purpose. For extended families, this has been an important way to stay connected, to check in on each other. It need not and should not end at family: Check in with neighbors, members of your faith community or social circles, your high school best friend’s parents, former coworkers, the neighbor kid who shovels your walk.

If such experiences of intergenerational connection serve us well in this crisis, then imagine a future in which we emerge from our lockdowns with more respect, more appreciation for the bonds between young people and old. Perhaps a pandemic is just the catalyst we need.

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