I realized as I looked around the dinner table that none of the women I’d invited shared the same first digit in their ages. I hadn’t planned it that way. It was just an evening with a few couples, a few singles, a lot of wine, and most importantly, good conversation with great friends and neighbors.
The beneficial, unintended consequence of bringing together members of my age-agnostic tribe hadn’t occurred to me until my 41-year-old friend mentioned it the next day. “That was such an interesting group,” she said, adding that she and Barbara, whom she met the prior evening, were planning to get together for lunch. I’ll add that Barbara is twice her age and at least as cool.
At 50 years old, I am grateful for the many lessons I’ve learned — that I continue to learn — from friends ages 19 to 89. At every turn, these often-unlikely relationships have forced me to reconsider a litany of preconceived, often unflattering assumptions: Millennials are lazy and entitled. Women in their 80s are frail and set in their ways. Once you hit 50 you can’t start over.
If you listen and engage, you’ll find that none of these stereotypes is true. Actively fostering connections with women of all ages delivers a spectrum of insight, dimension, and understanding that can inform how you show up in the world.
Here is what I’ve been lucky enough to learn.
From My Younger Friends
My friends in their 20s and 30s view themselves as citizens of the world and are more comfortable connecting with others, regardless of cultural, identity, or religious differences.
I remember listening intently to my 19-year-old friend, Abbie, as she explained the use of xe and xem as pronoun preferences for individuals identifying as gender nonbinary in our increasingly inclusive world. I hadn’t known anything at all about it. I had so many questions and was grateful for her insight.
Knowledge of our ever-changing world, including how to use the technology that drives it, has always been an area where I relied on those younger than me for guidance. But the information and skills this group can share are just the beginning.
At 50 years old, I am grateful for the many lessons I’ve learned — that I continue to learn — from friends ages 19 to 89.
For my 50th birthday my husband and I traveled to Thailand and spent our first week volunteering with elephants. The experience with these magnificent animals was life-changing, but easily the most valuable part of that week was connecting with the many young women in their early 20s from all over the world. They had each traveled there alone.
They were smart, thoughtful, motivated, and undeterred by the overwhelming challenge of making a difference. They were brave. By comparison, I realized that I almost always opted to play it safe. I resolved to be more like them.
The biggest lesson learned? Don’t be afraid to live a bit outside the lines. Put aside false notions about what you are supposed to do and consider what it is you want to do — or in some cases, what is the right thing to do. Then do it!
What can your younger friends learn from you? Advice stemming from authentic experiences. That even if it breaks your heart, leave someone who isn’t kind to you. That having some savings is a good thing. That perfection is overrated. That at the end of the day, the relationships in your life matter more than anything else.
From My Generational Peers
When the door to middle age opens, the questions, the changes, and the fears rush in. In these times, we gain so much from our community of friends facing similar uncertainty.
Women in our own age group are an invaluable resource for understanding and unraveling what is happening in your life right now. The importance of a support system that can answer the question Is this normal? is priceless. Shared experiences bring us closer, and this group of friends offers a needed sounding board for work dilemmas, breast cancer, menopause, graying hair, teenagers, the list goes on. Keep them close and have at least a few friends where the dialog is real, unfiltered, confidential, and compassionate.
From Women Older Than Me
If you could pick a single age and be that for the rest of your life, what would you choose? This question was raised over wine with three of my neighbors, all in their 70s. Unanimously the answer was 60. I was delighted by the knowledge that, without question, the best is yet to come.
The friendships I have with women who are 10, 20, and 30 years older than I am have taught me that aging doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. My older friends are fashionable, frank, curious, active, and adventurous. They are, it seems, young.
They are also resilient. If I have learned anything at all, it is that time and experience miraculously equips us for what lies ahead. At lunch recently, my friend Claire shared that her husband, who is struggling with dementia, recently entered a care facility. He is in his 80s, and I suspect she may be as well. I wondered how life had somehow prepared her to face such challenging times with calm, loving clarity. I wondered if I would be able to live so gracefully in the face of sadness.
The most important lesson I have learned is that years passing doesn’t change who we are. We may have a bit more wisdom to draw from, we may emerge more measured, more patient. But at the core, we are always ourselves.
Lea Maxwell is a database marketing executive, writer, Ironman triathlete, and founder of escapeundersail.com.