How intergenerational friendships have given me perspective during the ‘panic years’
I still think she was the coolest person I’ve ever met. Hair that was naturally the colour of a lighter flame; hair she refused to dye to fit in with all the other peroxide blondes in her year group. She wore Juicy Couture tracksuits and baggy black goth trousers, interchangeably with no self-consciousness at the contradiction. She listened to singer-songwriter, Fiona Apple. Stef (stylised with a ‘F’, not a ‘ph’, thank you very much) was, at 12 and three-quarters, a paragon of adult sophistication, as far as I was concerned.
There was only a school year between us. Technically, only six calendar months – her being a spring baby, me an autumn one. Back then school years felt a bit like dog years but, despite that, she accepted me as her equal.
Throughout school and university, I kept to my year group
The perspective our friendship offered was invaluable. A year further into high school, she already knew the teachers who were – deep down – soft-hearted saints; and the ones who were actually horned demons clothed in M&S nylon. Our long conversations about music and travel took me far away from the puberty-heightened politics of my Year 7 friendship group.
It was almost two decades until I experienced that kind of friendship again, a couple of years before turning 30. I have no older siblings and my younger brother is barely a year my junior. Throughout school and university, I kept to my year group. For the seven years I worked full-time in offices, I was on friendly after-work-drinks terms with my older colleagues, but it was always within the confines of professional hierarchy.
However, one of those friendships did outlast the office; my friend Chloe, who is almost a decade older than me. She’s been through divorce, illness, the premature loss of both her parents, and then, a major break-up. She’s channelled all that experience into focusing on what matters, and has built a life for herself that is full of love, colour and purpose.
Friendship set the stage for ‘intergenerational’ bonds
I’ll never forget the time she rolled her eyes at me after I spent 10 minutes deliberating over the brunch menu. “It really doesn’t matter, babe,” she said to me. And it didn’t. During a recent night out in London, I followed her lead, dancing carefree at the front while others my age huddled self-consciously in the corner, waiting to be noticed.
When we first met, she made me more excited to enter my fourth decade, rather than to cling to the remnants of the one I was in. I have no doubt she’ll continue to make each decade look better and better as she pioneers the way, just one step ahead of me.
Our friendship set the stage for the series of ‘intergenerational’ bonds I’ve cultivated over the past couple of years. It has coincided with a time in my life where I have felt lots of assumptions about what I ‘should’ be doing (find a relationship, get married, think about having kids). It’s a period that writer Nell Frizzell has referred to as the ‘panic years’.
We all do things on different timelines
Of course, deep down we all know the truth: there’s no need to panic at all. No matter what choices you make, life can be meaningful in a number of multifaceted ways, and the worst thing anyone can do is make major life decisions driven by ‘panic’.
In reality, we all do things on different timelines. Yet, somewhere around where I am now – age 30 – we all internalise the same daily dose of ‘shoulds’. This is where the perspective of intergenerational friendships comes into its own.
How did I meet these friends? Some friendships have been forged online, like one of my closest whom I met through Instagram. She’s less than four years older than me. It may not sound like much, but we’re both ensconced in the north-west London Jewish community where it’s common for people to pace through milestones.
She’s become the wise older sister I never knew I needed
Between us, we can compare perspectives and pressures: how to set boundaries around expensive hen parties; how to navigate things when your friends become parents (her joy at being a godparent is frankly infectious); how to avoid marrying the wrong person at the expense of yourself. Like Stef with a F, she’s become the wise older sister I never knew I needed growing up.
Despite never meeting in person, one of my favourite people to speak to is on Twitter; a divorced, child-free professor in her late 50s with whom I regularly swap solo travel recommendations. She once told me that, in forging her lifestyle, she’d lacked positive role models – so I’m grateful she’s been exactly that for me.
Because, frankly, I don’t know what I want in the future – just that I’m happy where I am right now: single, living on my own and self-employed. Whenever I’m vulnerable to being dragged down in a drip feed of ‘shoulds’, I’m instead buoyed by the ‘coulds’ – and the exciting possibilities of what my life might look like in the future.
Gen Z are infinitely more progressive and well-read
Having joined a co-working space last year, I’ve also had the chance to meet people of different ages organically, as you might do in an office. Only, there’s no professional hierarchy to complicate our friendships.
This works both ways: befriending people in their 20s – like a 21-year-old assistant who recently started at my friend’s company – is healing, reminding me of a time, not too long ago, where ‘The Big Questions’ didn’t loom at all. Younger friends also keep me young – dragging me to the pub after-hours or indulging my craving for a spontaneous night out.
And, now I’m 30, it’s nice to keep one foot in my 20s, while equally celebrating the confidence and consolidated sense of self I’ve developed since. Plus, it turns out, Gen Z are infinitely more progressive and well-read than I ever was at that age.
Friends are a reminder of the fallacy of ‘happily ever after’
It’s worth mentioning that my intergenerational friends aren’t always role models – some are the opposite. A friend in his late 30s confided that he often regrets ‘settling down too early’. Now, separated from his wife, he struggles to balance co-parenting with his biggest passion, which is running his business.
A taboo perspective? Yes, but a normal one. And a struggle that, I suspect, he might not confide in others his age (so perhaps this is where the friendship age gap works both ways).
Having friends of different ages is a constant reminder of the fallacy of ‘happily ever after’. Speaking to those who are, for instance, happily coupled-up but past the two-year mark (widely acknowledged by psychologists as the ‘honeymoon period’), or far along enough in their careers to have thought seriously about a work-life balance, reminds me that, as The Strokes song goes, the end has no end.
I’m grateful for the vantage point they offer me
I made several friends during my first Flash Pack trip this April, where I was one of the youngest in the group. While our ages spanned two decades, what was refreshing is that we were bonded by what we had in common (a desire to explore and experience Colombia) rather than what we did not (marital status, children).
Many people had come on the trip to celebrate something specific – buying a first home, completing an MBA – which reminded me there are multiple versions of success. More importantly, it made me appreciate that we don’t have to let age or life stages get in the way of forming new bonds.
Friendship feels boundless: living multiple lives, albeit some vicariously. Right now, many of my peers are doing the big, scary ‘adult’ things and hitting the so-called milestones. As a single, childfree, self-employed person, it would be easy to feel alienated. Instead, I’m grateful for the vantage point they offer me by sharing their experiences, for better and for worse.
Keep influences diverse rather than an echo chamber
We need different friendships to substantiate different parts of ourselves. If we are most profoundly shaped by the five people we spend the most time with – as Robin Dunbar has suggested – then surely it’s best to keep those influences diverse rather than an echo chamber.
My intergenerational friendships are a periscopic reminder that life is long, rich and full of possibility. Why panic, when there’s so much to be excited about?
Regular SOLO writer Francesca Specter is host of the Alonement podcast and author of a book of the same name.
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Images: Courtesy of Francesca Specter