The importance of social connection across generations

What do I mean by the ‘ageing tribe’? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a tribe as ‘a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect’.

Recently it has occurred to me that, because of the many conversations that are taking place in social media and more widely in the press, we are forming ‘tribes’ based on age.

A generational divide

There are examples of division between generations because of differences in opinion on issues such as climate change and immigration and, in the UK, the referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union.

Belonging to a group of like-minded people can be very comforting; we all like to see our views reinforced but that also discourages us from challenging our personal views and fact-checking before we form opinions or make important decisions.

Some of the language used in those posts and articles is hostile. Young adults have been referred to as the ‘snowflake’ generation, suggesting they are less resilient and over-sensitive to criticism, and young people have tweeted that ‘baby boomers’ are stealing their future with selfish attitudes and conservative opinions. This does not encourage any kind of helpful dialogue or conversation.

There will always be differences in views between generations based on the perspective that different experiences might give us, and lifestyles change as society moves with the times. But the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2017 reported that the factor most likely to have influenced voting decisions in the EU referendum was the level of education, not age. The survey found that 80% of 18 to 34-year-olds with a degree voted to remain in the EU, as did 70% of those aged over 55.

As a District Nurse forty years ago, I used to visit a lady who was 100 years old. Her first job involved travelling around central London in a horse and cart making deliveries to shops. Even 40 years ago, it was hard for me to imagine that happening around Piccadilly Circus! This lady’s daughter had bought her a microwave so that she could prepare her own meals, but she never really got her head around this technology and always marvelled at how quickly her ‘Michael-wave’ would heat the food.

My point is that these differences in viewpoint are easy to understand but leave us with a simplified and somewhat dangerous state of affairs. They encourage ageist attitudes and, in many ways, divert attention from the real causes of the problems that exist in any society.

Making connections

What we should be doing is engaging in open, non-threatening conversations with people having a range of opinions. If you demonstrate genuine interest in the reasons for dearly held opinions you can learn a lot.

My 90-year-old mother has recently moved into assisted living, much to her horror because she ’doesn’t like old people’. This type of attitude, which, it seems, is not uncommon, can lead to self-imposed isolation.

We need to make and maintain social connections as we age.

In the so-called ‘longevity hotspots’, those areas with a higher than average proportion of people living over 100 years, a common characteristic is the importance attached by older people of having a sense of purpose and belonging in their community.

So, what can we do to avoid falling into the trap of reinforcing our unchallenged prejudices?

Taking action

I plan to ensure that I continue socialising, not just on social media but face to face, with friends of a wide range of ages. How?

  • Volunteer for an organisation that attracts members from a wide age range, or join a group such as the Women’s Institute;
  • Take a class, either to learn something new or to take up exercise in any way you like;
  • Do anything you can to keep yourself open to new ideas and different points of view, perhaps by joining a book club, for example.

The truth is, we humans are dependent on each other and on our beautiful planet, so let’s not draw unnecessary battle-lines and allow ourselves to be diverted from the real solutions to the problems we face.