“Oh! I thought you were the same age as us or at least in your 60s,” the woman opposite me says, her eyes wide with surprise as she pushes a strand of silver hair behind one ear. “Liz never mentioned.”
A pause. This is not a sentence that I – in my late 30s and increasingly aware of the march of time – would usually be happy to hear. But I beam back, thrilled at her mistake.
Liz and I became friends five years ago. We met at the perfect place for a millennial like me to pick up an unsuspecting baby boomer: pottery class. It was a slow burn. For several years, we sat side by side as near strangers, kneading and moulding with our hands, our conversation limited to brief hellos and occasional daft questions (me to her).
I wasn’t there to make friends. Pottery was a place where the world could be shut out, where I didn’t have to think about anything else. Making small talk would only lead to questions about my work, the very thing I needed to escape from for three hours a week. Anyway, what could we possibly have in common?
Yet there was something about Liz’s cool demeanour and her dry sense of humour that made me glance at her often during our classes. Like keeping one eye on a curious bird that has flown into your garden, intrigued by its every peck or hop.
What we did have in common, we eventually discovered, was proximity. We lived just a few minutes from one another and had been near neighbours the whole time.
She gave me a lift home after class. And another.
Those car journeys quickly became an important new thread in the fabric of my life.
I don’t ever recall it feeling awkward. Our conversations flowed with the ease of someone you’ve known for years. It was like opening a novel at a random page to find two characters swapping stories, the context of their connection already irrelevant.
My preconceptions were turned upside-down. The first time Liz said “f***” I wanted to punch the air. It felt surprisingly like a victory that I didn’t have to moderate my own language around her just because she is three decades older than me – and when so many friends my own age have children, around whom I often put my foot in my potty mouth.
She is unconnected to anyone else in my life – something I cherish. Selfishly, it means I can speak to her about other people without fear of them meeting.
I can be honest about my fears, and she can offer advice that female friends my age cannot. Hers is wisdom formed by life experience, and she is not consumed by the same worries as my peers, who can be too close to give objective help. There’s no comparing or competition – it’s liberating.
Also, we both have cats.
Bridging the years
So often when it comes to age-gap friendships, we mistakenly think that the years will be too hard to bridge. So much suspicion and resentment has been whipped up by headlines reminding my generation that we’re the first group in history to be worse off than our parents – and that it’s all their fault. We’re encouraged to criticise how they vote and, God forbid, if they have a second home. They’re told we are flighty, unable to save and fritter away our money on avocado toast.
Rarely do we stop to consider what we might learn from one another. Isn’t that sad? Liz has taught me so much: that it’s possible to live how you want, whatever life hands you. That there is value in all relationships, and even those that have broken down can become meaningful again. That if you’re willing to push through the hard times, you can stay in each other’s lives.
Thanks to her, I have a new sense of remaining upbeat and busy as the years roll by. I know that I won’t give up on creativity, that I don’t have to stop drinking red wine during the week, that it’s perfectly possible to make new friends at any age – and of any age.
And it’s good for us. Analysis by the University of Kent and Age UK in 2017 found that having an intergenerational friendship helps us to feel more empathy, encourages self-disclosure and gives us perspective – no matter when someone was born.
When I began to ask women whether they had an age-gap friendship during the research for my new book on female friends, I was astonished to find out how many did. Good pals who I had known for many years suddenly revealed their hidden bonds with women 15, 25, 35 years older. Most told me that they had simply forgotten the age difference; it no longer mattered. Many held their age-gap friendship close to their hearts, in a secret space that was separate from anything and anyone else in their lives.
Livia, 34, told me about a former work colleague who had left a career in the charity sector, aged 50, to become a dominatrix. “She is entirely unconnected to the rest of my life and makes no judgement about anything,” she said. “There are things I shared with her that I’ve told no one else.”
I heard that sentiment over and over, particularly around sex – how much easier it is to explain what’s going on, or not going on, between your sheets to someone who has been there. With age-gaps friendships, there are no defined rules, so you’re setting your own boundaries as you go along. That opens you up to being challenged at times, but it also leaves space to be heard in a way that other friendships sometimes don’t. Under those conditions, it can be easier to broach things you might feel nervous to discuss with your peers.
It goes both ways. My friend Iona told me about her friendship with a former neighbour 35 years her senior who speaks to her openly about sex.
“I was initially uncomfortable that she talked to me so frankly about how men her own age weren’t up for being adventurous in bed,” she said. “I knew she was online dating, like me, but it had never occurred to me that she might be looking for sex as well as someone to go to the theatre with. I’d put her in the same age bracket as my mum. I suppose it hadn’t struck me that I could have genuine friends from a different generation, which seems very closed-minded now. I really value her experience and the fact she’s at a different place in her life, and yet in many ways, we’re going through the same things.”
‘You’re just a person’
That frankness is, in part, I think, what captivated my generation about one particular scene in the TV series Fleabag, in which the title character (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge) meets Belinda, 25 years her senior (and played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) at a women in business awards ceremony. Afterwards, the pair go for a drink in a hotel bar, and Belinda delivers a monologue that went viral – about menopause and growing older, told from the perspective of a mature woman passing on advice to a new, younger friend.
“Women are born with pain built in,” she said. “It’s our physical destiny – period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives … And then, just when you feel you’re making peace with it all, what happens? The menopause comes … But then, you’re free. You’re no longer a slave, no longer a machine with parts. You’re just a person, in business.”
Those words were shared millions of times. One newspaper called it “the best three minutes of television ever”. It sparked a longing for unexpected female wisdom. As one woman posted on Twitter, “Just once in my life, I’d love to share a moment with an older woman who isn’t my mum and talk … just intellect.”
That’s the thing with age-gap friendships: There are no expectations or pressure, making space for the sort of meeting of minds that our peer-to-peer friendships sometimes struggle with, particularly in our younger years.
Growing up, we are told that to have a ‘best friend forever’ is the pinnacle of friendship, that we should ideally have a female soulmate, with whom we share all our secrets. It can take years to unlearn that messaging – I spent most of my teens and 20s feeling like a failure for not having a perfect BFF or “girl squad”. It eats up valuable headspace that age-gap friendships tend not to demand.
It’s why so many women told me that these were the most joyful connections in their lives. “It’s so easy, one so young speaking to one so old – it’s amazing,” as one 92-year-old told me about her friendship with a woman in her 40s.
“She’s very cool and very sweet. She gives me a lot of, like, maternal advice,” Selena Gomez has said of her bond with Jennifer Aniston, who is 24 years her senior. The two have been pals for years but, like so many age-gap friendships, have kept their friendship relatively private. “She’s been extremely supportive and wonderful,” Aniston has responded about Gomez.
Would Liz say that about me? I honestly don’t know. I hope that I bring a little extra energy to her life, that maybe I can give her a space to air personal details that her contemporaries might not be willing to hear with open minds.
But I don’t ask her much about her past or probe too deeply. It’s not the same as having a friend your own age. She has more water under the bridge, and I don’t know where her emotional landmines might lie. It’s her choice what she tells me, just as it’s my choice to confide in her. And, really, when we’re talking – as any two friends might – the years melt away to nothing.
It’s why Liz hadn’t told her friend that I’m decades younger than them and why that friend was standing before me at my book launch telling me that she thought I was “their age” or in my 60s.
“I guess we don’t really think about the age difference much,” I replied, laughing. “After all, what’s 32 years between friends?”
This article is part of a series, Unexpected Friendships, telling the stories of friendships forged in unlikely circumstances.