Uniting generations in the age of social media

When we think about diversity, we don’t typically think about it as an age issue. But Britain is one of the most age-segregated countries in the world, and this presents a looming problem.

In England alone, the number of people aged 80 and over is set to more than double from 3 to 6 million in the next 40 years, and intergenerational division contributes to some of the greatest challenges we face as a nation – from loneliness and anxiety to poor health, ageism and even the housing crisis.   

Coupled with this, the nature of the modern global economy means increasing numbers of us live far away from our elder family members, perhaps even abroad. Our rapid pace of life also means that, despite the best of intentions, many of us don’t get around to picking up the phone, or spending time with them, as often as we’d like (or feel we should).

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So, what can we do? How can we overcome these distances, in society and within our own families, to refresh and renew the connections between generations as fast changing times create different landscapes to navigate?

Although widely blamed for exacerbating division and isolation, perhaps social media could be part of the solution that unites and inspires us?

Bill Lewisham’s decision to come out of retirement in his 80s to start a business, with encouragement and support from his grandson, recently went viral on LinkedIn.

The reaction to Bill’s adventure is part of a growing trend, gathering pace on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, for uplifting, sometimes inspiring, often amusing, intergenerational stories and collaborations.

Grandparent/ grandchild duos like @JessandNorma are attracting large audiences, as are street interviews of older people sharing their wisdom and perspectives, and the appeal of such content is not confined to the over 30s. As younger generations are often portrayed in the media as being resentful towards older people (Ok, Boomer), this is encouraging.

I’ve noticed with my own @dadanddolly Instagram account, where I share snapshots and stories of caring for my 87-year-old father and his dog, the outpouring of comments and messages I receive shows a real appetite for intergenerational connection. Some followers tell me they are inspired to do more with their parents and elder relatives, others share fond memories of elder relatives passed, while a great many express regret for what could have been.  

Inspiration and examples spread far beyond social media. The Netflix series The Queens Gambit, in which orphan Beth finally persuades a janitor to teach her to play chess, and eventually becomes a chess master, beautifully portrays the mutual benefits of a child /elder friendship. Comedian Jack Whitehall hit new levels of popularity by teaming up with his Dad to mine the rich comic material of age-difference. They will be back with a new series Fatherhood with my Father later this year.

The COVID lockdowns gave millions of Britons premature experience of the social isolation that is often such a problem for elder people. It drew the country’s attention to the importance of family resilience, of networks of support, to good neighbourliness. We are stronger together and should learn from each other. The young and old enjoy what each other have to offer, if we can find the right way to connect them.

I wonder if the key is finding a project or activity to bring generations together through creativity and mutual learning, rather than simply socialising.

Drawings for my Grandchildren (400K followers on Instagram) is a beautiful and successful example of this. The account was born from a son’s attempt to raise his retired father’s morale and engagement with life. Instead of spending his days watching tv, New York designer Ji Lee encouraged 75-year-old ChanJae to start drawing again. He also taught him to use Instagram, so he could share his drawings and connect with his grandchildren who lived in another country. The extra incentive of the drawings being for his grandchildren is what spurred this initially resistant Korean grandpa into action, and it is remarkable to see how his artwork improved.

Not only did this project foster intergenerational connection across oceans and revive Chanjae’s zest for life, it has led to a whole new creative chapter of creating books and selling his artwork, while leaving a beautiful legacy for his Grandchildren and generations to come.

As a society, we pay a heavy price for disconnection between generations. We lose the transfer of knowledge and life experience, our sense of safety and belonging diminishes, ageism flourishes and our health suffers. While we’ve always had generation gaps, bridging our modern divide requires more than just children singing songs for grandma, or making the occasional call.

It’s not going to be enough to delegate the job to governments and the many excellent charitable initiatives springing up around the country. We also need to get creative and make the effort ourselves in our own families and communities.

Perhaps thoughtful use of social media and the likes of Jess and Norma could be the fuel that ignites us.

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