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A Comment On Intergenerational Contact by Oskar Knight

For many young adults such as myself, visiting your grandparents is just about the only scenario in which you would spend any substantial amount of time interacting with older people. I am fortunate in the sense that I can still visit my grandparents today, at the age of 21, and can easily recall fond childhood memories spent with them. I am also fortunate because despite both being over the age of eighty, my grandparents are still fairly mobile, and remain as sharp and witty as ever.

However, the fact that young people’s social contact with older people is almost exclusively reliant upon them interacting with their grandparents can be problematic. Firstly, not all of us are lucky enough to have met our grandparents, or have clear memories of our time with them. This can mean that children have little, if any, meaningful contact with older people during the formative stages of their youth. Consequently, due to their lack of experience, these individuals may remain indifferent towards the oldest in society. As Michael North and Susan Fiske (2012) highlighted, this indifference can simply develop from a lack of education; for example, young people may ‘believe that because older people’s appearance implies certain traits (e.g. lonesome, inferred from droopy eyes; sad, inferred from stooped posture), then they must be that way’.[i]

Additionally, not everyone is lucky enough to have had pleasant childhood experiences with their grandparents. Witnessing the development of physical and mental vulnerabilities in your loved ones can be emotionally draining. If the only experience a child has with old age is one of such suffering, it is understandable why they may subconsciously choose to avoid interacting with older people later in life. This supports the “Terror Management” theory behind rising ageism, which argues that the youth avoid older people in an effort to push away reminders of their own mortality.[ii]Even young people who have had a positive experience with their grandparents, myself included, can develop harmful stereotypes about older people, simply because our perceptions of them are strongly based on our own experiences with our grandparents. I was recently in discussion with an older woman about my summer holiday to Croatia, and was discussing how fantastic our accommodation had been. “Do you know what Airbnb is?” I asked, already primed to explain why using the online accommodation platform was far superior to the old-fashioned alternative of staying in hotels. The woman explained that she herself had used Airbnb for years. After replaying the conversation in my head, and trying to understand where this presupposition had come from, I thought back to a similar conversation I had had with my granddad the year before. Although there is no evidence to support this theory, I think it is likely that my own granddad’s lack of understanding about Airbnb might have indirectly impacted upon my general perceptions of older people.

Although academic scholarship on this topic is lacking, there are recent studies which have demonstrated that increased intergenerational contact improves the youth’s perceptions of older people, and vice versa.[iii] It seems logical, then, that in order to fight ageism towards the oldest in society, the next step should be to enable and encourage opportunities in which children and adolescents can interact with older people on a more regular basis. This could be done in a multitude of different ways for each age group, such as:

– Encouraging schools to arrange regular talks and Q/A sessions with older individuals from the local community
– Establishing a network through which young adults could gain work experience volunteering in local care homes
– Creating a space in community centres in which young people and older people could coexist, and intergenerational events could be held. This could encourage dialogue between young people and older people through weekly activities, be it quizzes, competitions, fundraisers, parties etc.

The proportion of older people in developing countries is expected to more than double from 9% today to 20% in 2050.[iv] It is therefore crucial that over the next few decades, we become better prepared for dealing with an ageing population. Improving intergenerational contact, most notably in regards to the youth’s perceptions of older people, is one of the best ways we can prepare for this.

[i] North, M., Fiske, S., & Hinshaw, Stephen P. (2012). An Inconvenienced Youth? Ageism and Its Potential Intergenerational Roots. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 982-997.
[ii] North, M., Fiske, S., & Hinshaw, Stephen P. (2012). An Inconvenienced Youth? Ageism and Its Potential Intergenerational Roots. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 982-997.
[iii] Chua, Jung, Lwin, & Theng. (2013). Let’s play together: Effects of video-game play on intergenerational perceptions among youth and elderly participants. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(6), 2303-2311.
Hernandez, C., & Gonzalez, M. (2008). Effects of Intergenerational Interaction on Aging. Educational Gerontology, 34(4), 292-305.
[iv] Chua, Jung, Lwin, & Theng. (2013). Let’s play together: Effects of video-game play on intergenerational perceptions among youth and elderly participants. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(6), 2303-2311.