How to make meaningful connections in a modern world.

By Paige Porter Fischer
Updated September 19, 2017
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Age is Just a Number cross-stitch
Credit: Manfred Koh
Age is Just a Number cross-stitch
Credit: Manfred Koh

Engage in Friendly Competition

Our modern, marketing-driven lifestyles have us carefully sectioned out. We get names like boomers, Xers, millennials, and Gen Y, and then the world offers us products and services geared to our specific demographic. But what is lost as we try to experience life and all its joys and sorrows with only the company of others in our age group? Connection. Perspective. And wisdom. These are the gifts of multigenerational relationships. There are ways to prevent this loss, though. One is to play games—anything that can become ritualistic, from chess to cards to charades. Every Wednesday in the summer, my family goes to a community track meet at the University of Richmond. There’s something about my preteen running alongside 70-year-olds that builds community and respect. There are good athletes and people who can barely finish a race, but everyone is cheering one another on.

— Courtney Page Ferrell is a creative consultant for Fortune 500 companies and a TEDx speaker.

Cross-stitch (pictured left) by Steff of Sew Cross Handmade.

Swap Your Skills

Many communities today don’t look like they used to, with people of all ages and walks of life commingling regularly. Our company is creating living environments that reunite generations. In one of our apartment communities, we connected a retired schoolteacher with teenagers who wanted to learn French. Through these tutoring sessions, she gained a greater sense of purpose, and the girls, whose grandparents live far away, gained a grandmother-like figure in their lives. Proximity matters when you’re trying to build intergenerational relationships. Find ways to volunteer at retirement communities that are located close enough to commit to visiting regularly. That’s how relationships are built. If a place is too hard to get to and from, the connection just doesn’t happen, and everyone loses.

— Ryan Frederick is the Founder and CEO of Smart Living 360, a real estate development company focused on well-being.

Learn Their Language

We need a peace treaty between the generations. For example, many older people are filled with scorn about social media. A woman I interviewed derided young people for posting what they ate for dinner: “All that stuff nobody needs to know!” But snapping pictures of what you’re doing is a lot like telling a close friend how you spent your day. It’s a way of saying, “I’m thinking about you; don’t forget me.” It goes both ways. A student of mine complained that when she posted photos on Facebook, her mother would post a comment on every single one. But her mother was probably using the model of what she knows. If the daughter were showing physical photos and the mother sat there silently, it would be weird. Start from a position of respect, as if those of another generation were speaking a different native language. Ask them why they do what they do. My students love having an older person take a genuine interest in how they use social media, trying to understand their perspective. And they enjoy being the experts who have so much to teach me.

— Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of, most recently, You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.

Partner Up at Work

When we think about mentoring, we often think about children or teenagers. But some of the folks who need mentoring the most are millennials. They aren’t always inclined to tap into the wisdom of elders, so elders often need to be the ones to reach out. Our organization, which works with young black entrepreneurs, calls our mentors “accountability partners.” The goal is to give millennials someone to speak with when life gets in the way of their mission. The person aiding their process can feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment in return. Being an ear to someone who needs it is what mentoring is all about, really—just showing up and listening.

—Henry Rock is the Founder and executive director of City Startup Labs in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Invite a Crowd to Dinner

I love the “family table” concept developed by All Our Kids, a Generation to Generation campaign partner. Simply invite people of different generations over for a meal—they could be neighbors or people from your place of worship. Everyone helps prep the meal and set the table, and conversation is sparked by questions everyone can answer: “What are you grateful for?” “What’s something about yourself others might not know?” Everybody is invited back, and over time, the group naturally becomes like extended family. In a time when people, young and old, increasingly feel socially isolated, we could all use a little extra family.

—Eunice Lin Nichols is the Campaign Director of Generation to Generation, a campaign by to mobilize older adults to help young people thrive.