By: Lilly Lin
What should be a motivating force for bringing generations together? What is each generation’s role in the facilitation of such intergenerational relationships, and what could they seek to gain from them? I think over these questions as I head into my second month of working with The Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society (VACS), in particular on the Emerging Elders Project.
Growing up, my main source of intergenerational relationships was through my parents or the teachers at my schools. They guided me as I grew, made up part of my memories, and helped me transition through life in Canada. My teachers, with their colorful personalities and idiosyncrasies, helped to construct the kind of time I would spend in primary and secondary school. From a teacher who helped pick out my English name, to a middle school teacher who involved my friends and I in many extracurricular activities, to colorful Chemistry and Physical Education teachers who gave vibrance to my school life.
These formative years and relationships built a foundation for my identity and how I would interact with others. From there, as more time passed, the gap between the generations seemed to widen for me. It felt as if my concerns and interests were no longer the same as those of the older generation around me. We increasingly did not have the same outlook or responses to the world and events in society. The differences seemed more pronounced than any similarities and common grounds that still persisted.
And so, other than the intergenerational connections that entered and left my life naturally, I did not actively seek them out. I would hear at times from friends or colleagues of mentor-like figures in their lives or the value of mentorships. I wondered too, in moments, what it was like to have someone of the older generation as guidance and confidant through life’s journey. But to step across the gap that seemed to exist between generations seemed too much a barrier, and so the possibilities for something more never came to pass.
After starting work with VACS, I became acquainted with many different kinds of people. People in various disciplines, from all walks of life, and at different stages of their lives. These people were interviewees for our Emerging Elders Project or regular attendees of VACS’ events such as the Weaving Our Way workshop. Through this work, I gained the opportunity to speak with them, listen to them, and to learn from them.
Hearing their stories, I was given purview to moments of emotion, inspiration and elucidation; gaining audience to a wisdom informed from living through much time, coalescing in glistening nuggets of truth. These were invaluable treasures brought back by a kind of time-traveler, who had already experienced much and was looking back at us who are still in the present. To be given these nuggets was to receive a kind of key to the future, so that anyone, especially young people, could prepare for what was to come without having yet experienced it.
I began to see the value of bridging intergenerationally, of what lessons and insights could be gained from it and the connections that could be formed. There was less difference between us than I had thought, too. In listening to Colin Mills’ interview through our Keep a Conversation Going series, for instance, I found myself strongly agreeing with many of his points and perspectives. There were worries, sensations, realizations, that we all encountered in our lives as humans on the earth, though the details of our circumstances may differ. To hear these being touched upon, whether by someone much older or someone closer in age, were all points of connection and opportunities for collaborative dialogue.
Allan Chan, executive assistant at VACS, also sees the benefit of intergenerational connections. He shared the example of the Cantonese diaspora, who prioritize positive relationships with elders.
“This system, called filial piety, manifests itself down to the minuscule, making sure that your elders have the first bite and whatnot … Chinese households are often intergenerational in nature, I have a couple of peers whose grandparents live with them and the like. This is the same case for my grandma’s house, which has a few of my family members living alongside her.”
Having these multigenerational relations gave Allan a way to contextualize the immigrant experience and combat a sense of isolation in an uncertain time.
“When I have the opportunities to interact and engage in conversation with my family members [I] have the chance to understand their experiences and their personal struggles. It further contextualizes the immigrant struggle and the hardship one had to endure in the previous generation and provides reassurances that I am not alone in my struggles at my age.”
As someone with limited multigenerational relations in Canada, there were times I felt the estrangement stemming from this. I am sure I would also have benefited from that type of multigenerational household and having intergenerationality embedded more strongly into my values.
How can youths participate in intergenerational relationships outside of their familial structure, or when such values were not a part of their childhood? It takes both sides of the generation working together, according to Jonathan Pineda, film editor at VACS.
“We need youths to be respectful to wisdom,” he said. “However, other generations are responsible for teaching the importance of this respect and to demonstrate that respect back in kind. If we can’t all foster a sense of mutual all encompassing respect, to see youths as inexperienced equals but with just as much potential as their elders, then intergenerational relationships will suffer.”
He shared a story about a backpacking trip he took right out of high school that showed this mutual respect at work.
“I went backpacking across Europe and ended up in a hostel room filled with university professors and doctorate holders,” he said. “As we were all travelers with not much to do, they all took me under their wing and we began exploring the city together. After a couple days of exploring (and a few drinks) some of the older members remarked that they couldn’t believe they were able to talk to me so casually. Despite our large age gap, they come to talk to me like an equal.”
Both the younger and older members of the traveler’s group shared advice with Jonathan when he expressed his worries after high school. He learned how to relax and have fun and the “secrets” for getting through university.
What made the experience positive for Jonathan was that he felt the group had brought him “into their group as one of them” and gave advice that they would give “to a friend they knew well”. And it wasn’t just Jonathan that benefited from the exchange.
“In return, they seemed to enjoy my company and what they learned from it. Not only did they feel slightly better about people in my generation after speaking to someone like me, but they got to learn our perspectives weren’t as different as theirs. And they learned it all whilst having another companion in their journey.”
At the other end of the spectrum, a friend of mine shared her difficulties in connecting intergenerationally. To begin with, she has limited intergenerational connections, with her grandparents having passed away and her not having seen her parents in years. She described wanting mentorships in professors and writing mentors, but found that her experiences have not lent themselves that way.
“My experience has mostly been not one of mentorship but rather having to prove myself as acceptable to older individuals,” she said, “so mostly my intergenerational experience has been one of my [elders] being like arbiters of my success.”
She shared that despite performing well academically, her professors have never reached out to her or really accepted her reaching out. Her intergenerational relationships in academia have been very “top-down,” and have seemed to “only exist because of the structure of gatekeeping” and nothing more.
It seemed that for my friend, she was not able to get that sense of “mutual all encompassing respect” that Jonathan received from his backpacking experience. These then are some of the challenges that still exist for youth to reach across the generational gap and are perhaps flaws in the institutions themselves. How can institutions reduce the “top-down” relationship between “superiors” and “inferiors”? How can youth have reciprocal dialogue with their established elders without feeling they must prove themselves at every turn?
From the experiences of myself and my peers, it’s clear that intergenerational relationships can be beneficial for all involved. There is much to learn from one another, and there is much commonality if we allow ourselves to listen and integrate each other into our perspective groups. At the same time, challenges still exist that obstruct truly reciprocal dialogue and open relationships across generations.
And so the conversation continues. We invite all generations to the table to formulate our shared futures together so that everyone can benefit from the wisdom and transformative change of intergenerational connections.