As social researchers, we talk a lot about the differences between age groups. Media has a tendency to exacerbate such evidence of generational divides by critiquing Millennials, blaming Boomers or, well, forgetting Gen X. It can leave one wondering: Is there hope of Americans forging meaningful relationships that bridge these age gaps (and the cultural, spiritual and political gaps implied within them)? After all, Barna data has already shown that, when it comes to friendship, Americans tend to surround themselves with people who look, think and act similarly. A new Barna study, however, shows that intergenerational friendships can take many forms, and a majority of Americans reports engaging in them.
Two-thirds of Americans (68%) say they have a close friend who is either 15 years older or younger. A quarter of Americans (25%) has an older confidant, while fewer (16%) have a younger friend. Of those who enjoy multigenerational friendships, the plurality (27%) reports having both older and younger friends. Women are especially likely to report intergenerational friendships, usually with older peers (31% vs. 19% of men).
Still, a third of U.S. adults (32%) doesn’t closely commune with other generations. The data point to many factors that could set the stage for intergenerational friendships, including respondents’ age, current season of life and where they spend their time. These findings are worth noting for churches hoping to cultivate multigenerational congregations—and, indeed, one’s faith community also has bearing on the likelihood of cross-generational connections.
Understandably, a respondent’s age provides clues to the nature of the multigenerational friendships in their life. For example, Millennials (39%), being the youngest adult generation, are the most likely to report relationships with older peers (compared to 26% Gen X, 13% Boomers), many of which could be described as “mentors” (27% of Millennials with an older friend).
When asked how they would describe their intergenerational friendships, most use the simple term “friend” (84%). The next most common term among one-fifth of adults (21%) is “mentor,” followed by more formal relationship titles like “employee” (10%), “teacher” (8%) and “supervisor” (8%). Fewer use terms like “mentee” (5%), “sponsor” (4%) or “student” (4%), with almost one in 10 choosing “other” (9%) to describe their friendship.
Coworkers Turned Companions
Proximity can play a role in friendships, and accordingly, the Barna study shows people’s daily habits correlate with generationally diverse relationships. Whether friendships reach up or down the age spectrum, the workplace is the top environment in which people make cross-generation companions. This speaks to the amount of time Americans spend on the clock, especially in career-focused seasons of life. Those who have older friends often say they met their pals at work (37%), through a mutual friend (35%), through a family member (28%) or via a church or neighborhood connection (26% each). Individuals who have younger friends cite similar ways of making acquaintances, the workplace (37%) remaining the number-one environment where people develop multigenerational friendships, followed by mutual friends (33%), family members (26%), neighborhood connections (24%) or church (18%). This group sees a spike in intergenerational introductions made through their kids (21% vs. 7% of those with older friends).
Stages of Life & Seasons of Friendship
Higher education correlates with a higher likelihood of professional introductions to peers of other generations. For example, only one in five adults (20%) with a high school diploma or less education has made a younger friend from work, which is significantly lower than those who have completed some higher ed (42%) and others who have graduated from college (45%). This could be due to the length of time people spend in jobs they’ve received significant training for, increasing the chances that employees see the entrance of a younger workforce, as well as the fact that those who are educated at a high school level are often younger employees.
Being a parent strongly correlates with how one interacts with his or her community. A third of those with children under 18 at home have a friend of an older generation (32% vs. 22% of those without children under 18 at home), perhaps a result of looking to or identifying with other seasoned parents. If they have younger friends, they are likely to indicate they met through their kids (33%), through family members (33%) through a mutual friend (33%) and through volunteering (21%), while at the same time being less likely to make younger friends from work (28% vs. 40% without children under 18 at home), indicating a natural shift toward the family during this busy season.
Boomers, many of whom are likely to be parents and some even retired, tend to meet many of their older friends through other mutual friends (39%), the workplace (32%), their neighborhood (31%), a family member (29%) or church (28%). Their younger friends tend to be found more in the workplace (45%) by a significant margin, but also through mutual friends (30%), their neighborhood (25%) or a family member (23%). Another difference between how Boomers meet older vs. younger friends is that they are more likely to meet younger friends through their kids (22% compared to 5% older) than at church (16% vs 28% older).
Iron Sharpens Iron: Faith’s Role in Multigenerational Friendship
Passing along wisdom is a tenet of many faiths, including Christianity. With biblical examples like Paul and Timothy, Naomi and Ruth or Elijah and Elisha, do Christians have multigenerational friendships more front-of-mind than the secular community? It appears so.
When asked if an individual had a friend from another generation, only a quarter of Christians (28%) says no. By comparison, four in 10 non-Christians (41%) lack friendships with anyone outside their age group. Church attendance enhances this tie between faith and friendship; churched Americans are significantly more likely to have friends both old and young (32% vs. 22% of unchurched). Churched adults confirm that these relationships are often made at their place of worship (44% of those with an older friend, 32% of those with a younger friend).
Churchgoers are more apt to count on their older friends for advice, considering them mentors (26% vs. 14% unchurched). In turn, older generations appear to be sharing their wisdom; 16 percent of churched adults with a younger friend characterize them as a “mentee”(vs. 7% of unchurched adults).
What the Research Means
“In a world that has grown increasingly transient and a job market that often requires young people to move for work, close family relationships become more difficult,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna Group. “What were once common connections with an older generation of aunts, uncles and grandparents as well as with a younger generation of cousins, nieces and nephews have become a holiday event instead of a regular daily or weekly occurrence. In place of this, there is a need for new environments that can engender relationships between older and younger generations. We see in the research that this most commonly happens in the workplace—but the church is also primed to foster these relationships.
“Pastors and church leaders should be encouraged to see that Christians are more likely than average to have intergenerational friendships and to describe those as mentor/mentee relationships,” continues Stone. “Yet, it’s also worth noting that these relationships do not seem to be developing through formal programs—fewer than one in 20 say they formed their intergenerational relationships through a mentor/mentee program. Most of these relationships are happening more organically, through shared activities and affinities. For churches who want to emphasize intergenerational community, this might signal more of a need to teach people how to develop and maintain these relationships rather than implement some kind of ministry for them.”
About the Research
Research for this study included a nationally representative study of 1,067 U.S. adults 18+, conducted via online interviews from November 1219, 2018. Sample error is +/- 2.8 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.
Churched: attended church in the past month
Unchurched: have not attended church in the past 6 months
Gen Z were born between 1999-2015
Millennials were born 1984 to 1998
Gen X were born 1965 to 1983
Boomers were born 1946 to 1964
Elders were born before 1946
© Barna Group, 2019.
Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.
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