I Have Two Heads: Across the Years

Opinion by Rachel Kolb
March 1, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

I Have Two Heads: Across the YearsSitting in the coffee shop, I am in my element. My companion is telling a lively story, I’m laughing, and the time scrambles before we part ways. As I slip out the door, my companion tells me to say hello to my parents, and that’s when I remember: she’s their age, rather than mine. But yet it is we who are friends. Aren’t we?

This sort of generation gap is something that often strikes me, since many people I like seeing outside of my Stanford life are significantly older than I am. While growing up, I always gravitated toward adult company to an unusual degree, and since starting college, I’ve transitioned into a more equal relationship with those I once considered only as teachers and role models. A few of the people I consider friends are older than my parents, and their life circumstances are starkly different from my sweatshirt-wearing, bicycle-wielding existence in California. I enjoy their company, but still grapple with questions about the nature of a friendship stretched across so many years, questions about the type of footing on which we can interact.

In a sense, these questions are unnecessary. Friendship is friendship, in all its forms. No two relationships have the same dynamic, regardless, and variety in the age and background of our friends only adds spice to our lives, so to speak. The older we get, the more the illusion of age vanishes. (Haven’t we all learned this in growing up — to view our parents more as fellow human beings rather than as supreme oracles?) Finally, the beauty of being able to connect with people despite divergent circumstances is a testament to our commonly held humanity, or whatever you’d like to call it.

Still, age isn’t just an illusion. It’s real and shapes our interactions even if only subconsciously. For us college students, can our friends who are 30, 40, 50 or 60 years old be called friends in the same sense as our friends who are 20? Or should we think of these older friends less as friends and more as mentors? Semantics can be tricky sometimes. And the dilemmas of forming friendships with people who are of different ages than we are can be rather varied.

First of all, there is the question of experience. In the case of older friends, we find ourselves interacting with people who have more experiences than we do and more stories to tell. They are undergoing life stages with which we can’t yet identify, or for which we can’t yet provide concrete support. They may have more resources at hand or more advice to give. Through it all, there looms the question of reciprocity: because we are still young, it is sometimes easy to wonder how much we have to offer in these relationships, besides our company. We can sometimes feel like less than peers.

From the flipside, friendships across generations can grapple with the question of fluidity. Older friends can perceive themselves as settled in their ways — as stagnant and boring, even. We, on the other hand, are beautiful, free, young spirits that should be out soaking up the world, not languishing in dull conversations about grown-up stuff. Go on, enjoy being young! Don’t let the old folks tie you down! Just as we can wonder how well we can reciprocate given our limited life experience, people several years older can wonder why the heck 20-year-olds would want to spend time with them.

For me, the answer is simple. I enjoy having friends from different age groups because I enjoy the shift in perspective that such friends can offer. Being at Stanford, we undergraduates are continually exposed to the same cluster of peers. As wonderful as this can be, it doesn’t always provide the opportunities for completely, thought-provokingly diverse interaction. Throw in the frequent on-campus perceptions that professors are “unapproachable,” that graduate students are “busy” and “have their own lives,” and it can become all too easy to forget the feeling of living in a world in which a larger age spectrum exists. Escaping the usual set of cohorts, even if only for an hour or two, can be like a breath of fresh air.

As enjoyable as multi-generational friendships are, I suppose some doubts might always linger. We, after all, often seek out social interactions with people who are like us. Differences in age are another way of pressing us beyond that comfort zone. Even if we find surprising similarities in someone who is 20 or 30 years older than we are, or in someone who is considerably younger, those very differences in age might predispose us to feelings of uncertainty. We wonder what level of familiarity is appropriate, how much confidence we can share, how this relationship stacks up beside the others in our lives.

Ultimately, I would argue that we ask ourselves these questions about everyone. Differences in age can make them seem more poignant, but the answers we come up with just make life more interesting. After all, which of us Stanford students wants to be with other Stanford students all the time? Tempting, but I’ll pass.


Rachel is expanding the breadth of her multi-generational friendships. If you know of anyone from a past or future generation and/or have a time machine, e-mail her at [email protected].

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