In praise of making friends who are older than you
It was two months after graduation and I had managed to land my first post-graduate job. It was a temporary secretarial position, but I wasn’t complaining–the reality of my creative writing degree was just beginning to sink in. My new job in the “real” world was an anchor in the storm of post-grad change: my college community had scattered around the globe and I was left, yet again, to make new friendships. But unlike my first day of college, or high school, or summer camp, I was younger than every single one of my fellow co-workers, often by more than two decades, and I wasn’t sure how to make friends across this generation gap.
I was used to seeing older generations as people in charge of me, rather than as equals. I barely felt like an adult and yet there I was at staff meetings being treated like everyone else. There was no transition period to help me acclimate. All that had happened was someone handed me a diploma and then I filled out a job application. By comparison, my co-workers seemed to have a far more legitimate claim to adulthood than I. They had kids (some of whom were my age), marriages, established careers—they even used coasters.
I was used to making friends with people who were going through the same generational experiences as I was—puberty, Algebra, The Princess Diaries. From pre-school through college I’d been age tracked with my peers. Most of them fell within a few years, if not a few months, of my age. Even making friends outside my own grade felt like crossing an invisible line. In my new job, it wasn’t so much a line as a gulf. I didn’t feel like my co-workers would be interested in anything I had to say, and I had no idea how I would respond when the conversation turned to things like parenting or 401Ks.
There were a lot of awkward moments, places in our conversations that faded into silence or turned into overly long discussions about the weather. I began to appreciate Dad jokes more, even if they were dumb at least they had nothing to do with overcast clouds. Through all those awkward conversations I began to realize that my co-workers were just as self-conscious about our generational difference. There were a lot of sheepish replies like, “you probably wouldn’t be interested in what I’m saying, you’ve got better things to think about” or “well, that was back in my day, I’m sure people you’re age are doing things differently.” It was comforting knowing we were in the same awkward boat together, and that my co-workers weren’t uninterested, they were just baffled at how to communicate.
Mutual awkwardness turned into mutual curiosity. I got a lot of questions about what “young people” were up to. Was a hipster today the same thing as it was in 50s? Were millennials really as finicky as The New York Times had portrayed them? And if so how did they expect to make a career of it? Likewise I had a lot of questions of my own. How did my co-workers manage to find their career paths? How did they figure out where they wanted to live? Did anyone who lived in that era actually take the 80s seriously? We were both looking over the generational divide and wondering if the grass was really as greener as we remembered or predicted (as the case may be). Or maybe our interests and struggles weren’t as divided as we thought?
I remember wondering why I hadn’t done this before. How had I allowed myself or allowed society to so strictly define my friendships and my identity by my generation? It was like each generation was locked into its own orbit, complete with its own stereotype and a non-affinity for those who came before or after.
The friendships I formed were like every other friendship in that we shared our experiences and thoughts, but it was new in that we were coming from different generational perspectives. It was strangely exhilarating to go out to lunch with my older friends. Part of it was the respect of being considered an equal and another was the trust of being considered a friend. I was surprised at how easy it was to simply schedule a lunch (not to receive a flake out text half an hour before) or how readily people responded to my curiosity about their lives. It allowed me to break down the stereotypes attached to our generations. We weren’t incompatibly different. I look back on this time and I am incredibly surprised that this was such an issue.
Not only did I feel more comfortable socializing at work, but the friendships taught me to relax a little about the pressures and responsibilities that came with being an adult. People decades older than I were still figuring it out. It was a comforting, even unifying, experience.
I would end with a message of inter-generational hope and love, but I worry that it would tokenize “the older friend.” Because who knows, in twenty years I might be the friend of some up-start young writer. In fact, I hope so.
[Image via Starz]