These days it feels like friendship has become a commodity. If Facebook is taken as the main platform for friendship in 21st century human life then the value of your friends can be measured, analysed and the results sold on as data.
Nothing could be further from the lived experience of friendship according to two researchers of friendship who shared their work at the British Society of Gerontology Northern Ireland event held in Trinity College Dublin (TCD) on April 12, 2018. An audience of academics, activists, retired trade unionists and representatives of voluntary sector organisation such as Linking Generations Northern Ireland and ALONE from both sides of the Irish border gathered to hear about what it means to have younger friends when you are old, and older friends when you are starting out in life. The result was a synthesis of ideas that had many in the room convinced that there is something universally shared by the experience of friendship regardless of national, cultural and political contexts.
The theme for the event – ‘Exploring Inter-generational Friendship’ – was the brainchild of Catherine Elliott O’Dare, a doctoral student at TCD and member of BSG whose thesis explores inter-generational friendship among a diverse sample of men and women living in Ireland. Catherine’s work offered vivid descriptions of what it means to be a friend. ‘Having a laugh together’ through a shared interest features. For some people this is taking photographs in a camera club, for others it is making and tasting gin they have distilled together. Whatever brings people together it seems that sustaining a friendship well into old age requires a commitment of time and an egalitarian relationship. Your friends don’t make you do anything – you just happen to enjoy doing things together. This need to be heard was particularly resonant in the work of Rikka Korkiamaki from Tampere University who shared her work on inter-generational friendships of young asylum seekers in Finland. The testimony of accompanied and unaccompanied minors, some of whom were refugees was moving and enthralling in equal measure.
The bottom line is clear: your friends are the people that you choose to spend your free time with. The 256 or so ‘friends’ you have on Facebook do not count. Friends are the people you take the trouble to see. A friend is someone you look in the eye and share an experience with. Any two people can be friends and apparently inter-generational friendship is quite common. However, to sustain any friendship you need to put in the time. As a psychotherapist in the audience remarked, ‘No living thing will stay alive unless you put time into it.’ In the rich discussion that followed, the significance of friendship as a valuable social intervention was apparent. For practitioners, the significant challenge of balancing risk while promoting inter-generational friendship was discussed. The consensus seemed to be that preserving this important aspect of our lives was worth the effort of putting appropriate measures in place.
I left the seminar determined to meet up with my friends this weekend. In person. I am pretty sure I made a couple of new friends too. A good day all round.
Thanks to BSG for supporting this small event and to the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin for hosting BSG NI’s first cross-border event.