Intergenerational Relationships Can Happen Online

By Sasha Johfre

When youth and older adults develop meaningful relationships, both parties benefit: older adults report better mental and physical health, and youth have lower rates of depression and better life outcomes. Even among adults, age-diverse teams at work are more productive than are age-segregated ones, and they provide high net-positive value to their organizations.

In the past, a significant barrier to intergenerational relationships has been the rampant age segregation that exists in our world. For years, we have lived in a society where young people are in schools, adults are at work, and older adults are in retirement communities. Furthermore, research shows that beyond direct family ties, most people’s social networks are heavily age-segregated, such that most of their friends are the same age they are. This means that younger and older people are unlikely to run into each other in the casual-but-meaningful ways that friendships and mentorship relationships are often made.

The physical distancing that we have all been experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people around the world to be more creative about the way they connect with others. The benefit of this forced creativity is that it has allowed people to jump out of the ruts of social engagement as we previously knew it. It has meant that constraints on relationships are no longer about where somebody lives – making some of the negative forces of segregation less salient for relationships.

I have been heartened by the stories I have heard of older adults helping educate and entertain youth while their parents try to work from home or go to their essential in-person jobs. I have also been heartened by the effort from young people to assist their older relatives in tasks such as grocery shopping to reduce potential coronavirus exposure.

After the pandemic, we should continue to think creatively about how to develop and maintain meaningful intergenerational relationships. With the right mix of cultural motivation and technological tools, future intergenerational relationships may not be mired by the same barriers of segregation that populations of the past had to face.