Intergenerational connections: why they matter and how books can help

giverLiterature is a powerful tool in providing youth with a realistic perspective of older adults and the aging process, complete with its triumph and despair, normative illnesses and extraordinary accomplishments. — Jarrott & McCann 306

Complex transitions

Hopkins & Pain report that young adults develop their identity—at least in part—through interactions with other generational groups. The extent to which these interactions are positive and cooperative has a “material [effect] on the experiences and quality of life” for young people in particular (289). In an era when the transition to adulthood is arguably more complex than ever before (Jeffrey & McDowell, 131), society must consider how to positively influence that transition. One way to do this is to foster relationships between young adults and older members of their communities.

Contact matters

Young_old-300x262In a 2013 paper called “Analysis of Intergenerational Relationships in Adolescent Fiction Using a Contact Theory Framework,” Jarrott & McCann state that contact with elders “is typically associated with positive effects on [young people’s] attitudes toward older adults,” and that “promoting young people’s positive attitudes towards older adults… may improve their overall quality of life” (293). Therefore, positive interactions between young adults and their elders—intergenerational relationships, in other words—benefit both parties in the relationship. By extension, older adults in general may suffer less from negative stereotyping as the attitudes of young people shift.

Such relationships make a difference to young adult views on mortality too. As long ago as 1948, psychologist Maria Nagy analyzed children’s views on death. She found that, starting at around age nine and continuing thereafter, children begin to understand and eventually accept that death is final, inevitable, and universal. She recommends that adults do not try to shield children of this age from the reality of mortality (3). Indeed, subsequent researchers posit that individuals with exposure to and positive attitudes towards aging and mortality are more likely to have better memories, health, and life expectancy (Nauert, Levy et al). As adolescents experience the death of loved ones—grandparents, for example—they may be ready for and curious about literature that explores this theme.

Logistical challenges

Although life expectancy is on the increase in most developed countries and young people are therefore more likely to have living grandparents throughout their entire childhood, they don’t necessarily have more contact with older adults than their counterparts did a generation or two ago. Why? Because generations are less likely to live together—Hagestad & Uhlenberg have rather depressingly called old age a “separate country” (345)—and because declining birth rates mean that young adults have fewer older relatives to spend time with (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton).

Understanding that positive interactions with older adults will have a positive effect on an individual’s quality of life, how best can we foster such relationships when it may be difficult logistically?

Media stereotypes

As exercise and a proper diet of healthy foods help one age well, the young person most likely to view elders and aging positively will likely have a healthy diet of media portraying elders and youth working together as vital members of society. (Jarrott & McCann, 306)

cruelleIt gets worse—it seems that the media is part of the problem. Young adults are the largest media consumers of all demographic segments (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts), and studies from 1977 (Blunk & Williams) and 1980 (Bulter) suggest that ageist stereotypes in the media have a pernicious and lasting effect on this audience. It is not just the stereotypes that are a problem—Jarrott & McCann cite several studies that demonstrate that older characters are enormously under-represented in the popular media (294).

And yet there are more older adults than ever. Jarrott and McCann say: “With their increasing proportional presence in the global population, we have the imperative to address the realism with which elders are portrayed in the domains in which children spend their time, which is increasingly the virtual world” (295).

The role of literature

Jarrott & McCann see young adult literature as having enormous potential to build bridges between the generations and counteract the negative stereotyping seen in other forms of media: “literature is a powerful tool in providing youth with a realistic perspective of older adults and the aging process, complete with its triumph and despair, normative illnesses and extraordinary accomplishments” (306). And they point out that the effects of such literature is strongest when the books are discussed.

Librarians can, therefore, play a key role. Not only can they provide youth with access to relevant literature, but they can offer forums for discussion and the opportunity for direct intergenerational contact through targeted services.



Bengtson, V. L., Rosenthal, C., & Burton, L. “Families and aging: Diversity and heterogeneity.” In R. H. Binstock & L. K. George (Eds.) Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences 3 (1990): 263–287. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Web. 4 Aug. 2013

Butler, R. “Ageism: A foreword.” Journal of Social Issues 36.2 (1980): 8–11. Web. 4 Aug. 2013

Hagestad, G. O. & Uhlenberg, P. “The social separation of old and young:
A root of ageism.” Journal of Social Issues 61 (2005): 343–360. Web. 4 Aug. 2013

Hopkins, P. and Pain, R. “Geographies of age: thinking relationally.” Area 39 (2007): 287–294. Web. 4 Aug. 2013.

Jeffrey, C. and McDowell, L. “Youth in a comparative perspective: global change, local lives.”Youth and Society 36 (2004): 131-142. Web. 4 Aug. 2013.

Jarrott, Shannon E. & McCann, Brandy R. “Analysis of Intergenerational Relationships in Adolescent Fiction Using a Contact Theory Framework.” Gerontology & Geriatrics Education 34.3 (2013): 292-308. Print.

Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. “Increased longevity by positive self-perceptions of aging.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83 (2002): 261–270.

Nagy, Maria. “The Child’s View of Death.” In Herman Feifel ed., The Meaning of Death. New York: McGraw Hill, 1959.

Nauert, R. “Mortality Awareness Can Lead to Living a Better Life.” Psych Central. 2012. Web. 31Jul. 2013.

Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. “Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8- to 18-year olds.” N.p., 2010. Web. 10 Aug. 2013.

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