Can the old and young be friends?

Here is a short piece I wrote a few ago on the value of and the possibility for intergenerational friendships.

During the Year of the Family, Pope Francis devoted one of his Wednesday addresses to the elderly and another one to grandparents. He thinks that part of the culture of death is a poverty of intergenerational friendships: “How I would like a Church that challenges the throw-away culture with the overflowing joy of a new embrace between young and old!” What are the obstacles to such an embrace? In his Ethics, Aristotle observed that young people tend to seek pleasure in friendships and that the old tend to seek friends for utility, but that good, enduring friendships involve being friends for the other’s own sake. Given the distinct tendencies to which the old and young are prone, can they actually be friends?

Aristotle observed “the old need friends to care for them and support the actions that fail because of weakness” and friendships aimed at useful results tend “to arise especially among older people, since at that age they pursue the advantageous.” Because of their frailty, older people may depend on others to ensure their physical wellbeing and because of their age, they may be especially concerned about conserving their acquisitions. He says, “Among sour people and older people, friendship is found less often, since they are worse-tempered and find less enjoyment in meeting people, so that they lack the features that seem most typical and most productive of friendship. That is why young people become friends quickly, but older people do not, since they do not become friends with people in whom they find no enjoyment—nor do sour people.”

This is coherent with 89-year-old Douglas Walker’s account of life at a retirement home: “Unlike soldiers, prisoners or students, we at the lodge are here voluntarily and with no objective other than to live. We don’t have a lot in common other than age (and means). However we are encrusted with 70 or 80 years of beliefs, traditions, habits, customs, opinions and prejudices. We are not about to shed any of them, so the concept of community is rather shadowy.”

So, Aristotle connects being old with being sour, bad-tempered, and ungenerous and, for these reasons, says old people are less inclined to friendship. However, he also attests that “we should accord honor to our parents, just as we should to the gods”, that “it is more necessary to have friends in ill fortune [than in good fortune], and that “no one would choose to live without friends even if he had all the other goods.” Friendships that are based on utility are precarious and can easily be dissolved. This is because such friendships are based on useful results for both parties rather than on the value of each person involved and the good for each person’s sake.

The young, on the other hand, seem to form friendships based on the mutual pleasure it brings. Aristotle says the young are “guided by their feelings, and they pursue above all what is pleasant for themselves and what is at hand. But as they grow up [what they find] pleasant changes too. Hence they are quick to become friends, and quick to stop; for their friendship shifts with [what they find] pleasant, and the change in such pleasure is quick. […] These people wish to spend their days together and to live together; for this is how they gain [the good things] corresponding to their friendship.”

Given the taste that the young tend to have for the pleasant and the expedient, it is not difficult to find resentment by the young toward the old. For example, in an op-ed titled, “Hate millennials? Blame Boomers” Matt Gurney writes, “Oh, and Boomers? All those entitlements you were counting on, and that big home you live in? Good luck selling it to an intern with $40,000 in student debt. People who make no income can’t pay for many hip replacements. Stay healthy, folks.” This expresses what Pope Benedict XVI observed when he said: “And yet frequently society dominated by the logic of efficiency and gain does not accept [longevity] as [a blessing]: on the contrary it frequently rejects it, viewing the elderly as non-productive or useless.”

Given these two tendencies, which are incomplete friendship, no wonder there is little interaction between the young and the old. This is especially the case given that friendships based on interest, either in terms of pleasure or utility only seem to endure when both persons get the same thing from each other. If two persons mutually benefit from using one another or from enjoying one another, then it may last for a while. But the young and old tend to have different aims and orientations given their different stages of life, so their interests rarely align. And so, as Aristotle points out, “these [incomplete] types of friendship are not very regularly combined, and the same people do not become friends for both utility and pleasure. For things that [merely] coincide with each other are not very regularly combined.” Both species of friendships based on pleasure and utility are incomplete. Above all, they do not endure because they are based on what is pleasant or useful (which is ever-changing) rather than on the good of the person in his or her own right.

The only way that the young and old (and anyone, for that matter) can actually be friends is to subordinate their concerns with pleasure and utility so that there can be mutual benevolence for each person’s own sake. Complete friendship requires greater attention on loving than being loved. While utility and pleasure may result from a good friendship, these ends need to be subordinated to the value of the persons involved in order for friendship to flourish in an enduring way. Aristotle argues that good friendship that is true and enduring depends on each friend willing the other’s good and that this is how love can be equalized in otherwise unequal friendships.

Aristotle takes into account various theories about friendship. Some say that it is important for friends to be similar. Others think that difference is conducive to friendship. Aristotle judges what really counts to be that the friends share a love for the truth, some common interests, and that they want to live and converse together. Could friendships between the young and old educate persons in cultivating virtuous friendships through conquering their respective tendencies to pleasure and utility in favour of affirming the objective value of the person?

Three instances of young and old living together show some how preoccupations with pleasure and utility can be transformed into mutual benevolence, that is, into friendship. Such everyday examples show that Aristotle’s distinction may be too categorical given that it seems the young and old can reverse their concerns for pleasure and utility, with the young valuing utility more highly and the old being over-concerned with pleasure.

What began as a way for Dutch student, Jurriën Mentink, to live rent-free in exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month with the elderly developed into a warm friendship with a resident. Tiffany Jansen wrote: “Mentink recalls being woken up in the middle of the night by a staff member. One of the residents had attacked a nurse. The resident was extremely agitated and nothing the staff did seemed to help. ‘When she saw me, it was like 180 degrees around,’ Mentink recalls. ‘She was instantly relaxed and happy to see me.’ And Jansen also notes “another student became so close with a resident that she asked her to be the flower girl at her wedding.”

In Cleveland, music students live rent-free in exchange for companionship and concerts. Attesting to Aristotle’s assessment of human nature, one senior says, “There’s a tendency, as people get older, to isolate. In this community, there’s less opportunity to do that because we have the kids here.” Another says, “It’s not even that we cook that much together, it’s that we talk a lot.” The students who are away from their own families testify to the benefit of having the seniors’ support.

And, in Helsinki, students are also living in a retirement home. “Basically, I was homeless; not on the street, but homeless,” said Emil Bostrom. Three hundred applicants wanted in because of the high cost of living in Finland. Jonatan Shaya said, “In a normal apartment, the neighbors don’t exactly talk to you because Finnish people are kind of shy. Here they were very welcoming and I had this heart-warming feeling that it’s good to be here.” Bostrom says, “The gap between young people and the old isn’t that big that we can’t be friends.”

When Pope Benedict XVI says, “The quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life”, he can be understood to mean that the test of civilization is the extent to which persons can subordinate their tendencies to pleasure and utility, for the sake of other persons, in friendship, to willing the other’s good. Aristotle’s understanding of friendship is that true friends wish goods in the same way to each other insofar as they are good, and they are good in their own right. Hence they wish goods to each other for each other’s own sake. This sort of friendship is enduring.

Precisely because friendships based on pleasure and utility are not very regularly combined, the young and the old, who have these respective tendencies in their friendships, tend not to associate much. But since both these kinds of friendship are incomplete, friendships between young and old seem to have the surprising possibility to draw out the best kind of friendship, precisely through the friction of interest into the goodness of mutual benevolence.

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