Young people are likely to become a lot more familiar with the older generation in the near future. Those over pensionable age now make up around a fifth of the population – a figure that’s rising fast. But though we know all about the potential problems of an ageing population, there could be huge benefits for both young and old, too.
According to a survey by national friendly society Oddfellows, almost all over-55s and under-25s have found spending time with a member of another generation rewarding – from enjoyable conversations to learning more about themselves and life. ‘There’s a virtuous spiral,’ says Mark Vernon, author of The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan, £12.50). ‘Elder wisdom can be exchanged for youthful energy; fresh eyes for experienced thoughtfulness.’
Strong, long-lasting intergenerational friendships are still uncommon, of course, but as these three pairs of friends demonstrate, a relationship that puts fun and shared interests ahead of age can be hugely enriching.
Jennifer and Sally Anne: age gap of 25 years
Jennifer van Schoor, 45, and Sally Anne Olivier, 70, have been friends since becoming neighbours, 16 years ago.
When a young South African woman moved into the shared house next door to her in Camberwell, south London, in 2000, Sally Anne made a point of chatting to the youngster to make her feel welcome.
The educationalist had been brought up in Cyprus and when she first moved to England had felt ‘frightfully lonely’ – something she wanted Jennifer to avoid.
The relationship didn’t move past the affable neighbours stage, however, until Jennifer, a designer, moved into a place of her own, eight years later. Sally Anne would invite her round to find out how she was getting on and to see if she could be any help.
‘She was incredibly supportive and I felt very relaxed with her, opening up about myself,’ says Jennifer. The relationship blossomed and the pair would regularly meet for tea.
The difference in ages meant there was no competition about love-lives or careers between the two, so as Sally Anne puts it, they found themselves with an ‘an unconditional friend. There was no judgement.’
As Jennifer adjusted to London life, Sally Anne continued to be there for her. ‘We have often laughed and said, “Oh, I’m your daughter or you’re my second mum,”’ says Jennifer, who concedes she swears less in front of Sally Anne. ‘We’re friends, but if I’m feeling vulnerable, she’s more of a mother figure.’
These days, as well as the tea, Sally Anne shows Jennifer how to garden and Jennifer will help her on the computer. Occasionally they’ll have what Sally Anne calls a ‘scruffy dinner’, a haphazardly thrown together meal that Jennifer says is actually not scruffy at all. When Jennifer was on her own one Christmas, Sally Anne even invited her to spend the day with her and her husband, James.
‘I think you as you get older, you curl in on yourself, like yesterday’s sandwich,’ says Sally Anne. ‘It’s important to always be inquisitive and having a younger friend is great because you can see things through their eyes.
‘More people should be aware of what’s in a person’s mind - rather than how many candles they have on their birthday cake.’
Find out about the benefits of an age gap friendship
Peter and Tom: age gap of 35 years
Director Peter Avery, 76, and conductor Tom Hammond, 41, first met when they worked together on a theatre production, 14 years ago.
Tom may have still been in his twenties when he directed the music for a production of The Threepenny Opera for Peter’s arts charity in 2002, but a shared love of talking about music, plays and creativity meant the pair somehow gelled.
‘I admired Tom’s skills – without understanding them,’ says Peter, founder of the London-based 1st Framework and its over-60s theatre collective, 3rd Thought. ‘And I think he liked the way I do things my own way.’
After the production ended they carried on meeting up, often going on long walks together – something they now do once a month – through London or even rural Wales.
‘Tom is an excellent walking companion, which is great praise indeed,’ says Peter. ‘I think there’s something about the pace, the amount of conversation, a willingness to stop and look at things.’
The pair discuss current affairs on their walks – and, happily, given they spend so much alone together, are politically in tune. They don’t tend to share much about their personal lives, though. ‘We’re men!’ protests Peter.
But Tom, from Wolverhampton, feels that Peter encourages him to take a more radical approach to life. ‘I’ve noticed that he is ahead of the game in a lot of things. I suspect Peter might have been among the first to do intergenerational theatre work, for example. He’s more experimental than me.’
Peter is a bit of an anomaly among his peers, claiming he doesn’t have any mates of his own age: ‘Well, I have one school friend… but it is curious.’
Yet neither sticks to convention and they find it’s creative work that energises them. ‘Artistic performance rips away layers of expectation about what you should be doing in your life,’ says Tom. ‘People turn up for rehearsals and you see they’re tired and stressed, but ten minutes in, everyone’s forgotten about whatever’s happened in their day because they’re absolutely focused on that artistic goal.’
Perhaps what Tom likes most about Peter is that he keeps looking forward. ‘He doesn’t do constant nostalgia, back referencing to how things were so much better 30 years ago. If something new is happening, he doesn’t ignore it. That breaks the generational barriers down.’
Find out how intergenerational learning helps young and old
Sharon and Jo: age gap of 34 years
Sharon Turpin became mates with Jo Burgoyne, 29, ten years ago, when the 63-year-old ran a fast-food van outside Jo’s place of work.
‘My friends call me the oldest rock chic in town!’ says Sharon. ‘I [sometimes] dance all night. I think they’re quite envious – “Oh, I wish I could do that”.’
Sharon has been blessed with terrific health, unlike some of her 60-something contemporaries, but a lot of her vivacious approach to life is down to her youthful pal, Jo. The pair became close when Jo regularly visited Sharon’s burger van, outside the B&Q store where the then 18-year-old worked. ‘We just clicked naturally,’ says Jo. ‘Jo introduced me to alcohol,’ adds Sharon.
‘Let’s rephrase that,’ corrects Jo, hastily. What Jo in fact did was reintroduce Sharon to fun. ‘I’d lost my eldest son a few years before and gone into myself,’ says the mother of three. ‘I didn’t want to go out and do anything.’ After a few months of friendly chatting, Jo managed to persuade her to come out for the evening. ‘We began having girly nights round our other friends’ houses,’ she says.
‘It did me good to start living my life again,’ says Sharon, who now works at B&Q with Jo. ‘It was ten years ago but it could have been ten days.’
‘I think we’ve got very similar mentalities,’ says Jo, ‘Quite childish at times. If we’re on an early start we may have a bit of a skip and a dance down the store to some music.
‘We’re constantly ribbing each other,’ adds Sharon. The pair’s extra-curricular activities have included Halloween roller-skating discos together, up-all-night parties, and keep-fit boot camps in aid of charity.
But the relationship isn’t all high-jinks – it has a rounded, caring side. When Jo split up from her first serious partner it was Sharon, with her greater life experience, that saw her through. ‘I’m able to guide Jo a little bit more,’ says Sharon. ‘Still, she’s more mature than me sometimes. You kind of meet in the middle. That’s the advantage of having older and younger.’
They agree that they feel like family, but without the grief. ‘There’s stuff that I can discuss with Jo, as young as she is, that I couldn’t actually discuss with my lifelong friends.’
‘I don’t feel embarrassed talking about anything with Sharon,’ agrees Jo. ‘If I’m being silly she’ll tell me.’
Jo may be in her twenties, but for Sharon, she’s got a very wise hear on young shoulders.
‘She’s helped me a huge amount. She’s special.’
Read our tips for making new friends