Think for a moment about the typical Boomer childhood. We Boomers probably grew up in neighborhoods where we got to know not just our friends, but our friends' parents, uncles, aunts and even grandparents. In our own families, it wasn't unusual to have older generations living close by or even in the same household. As a toddler, I regularly interacted with my grandparents and other older relatives.
Today things are very different. Instead of experiencing this close-knit intergenerational bonding, modern families are typically spread out across cities or regions. Even though people are living longer, young children don't seem to be intimately involved with the elderly nearly as much as in previous times. As a result, these kids may not be growing up with an understanding or empathy for older generations.
A series of essays in the Stanford Social Innovation Review has explored this issue in detail; I've written about a number of intergenerational programs mentioned in those essays that show promise. In the final essay in the series, "Rebuilding an Age-Integrated Society," Marci Alboher and Eunice Lin Nichols write, "Today, most younger people are in school, middle-age people are at work, and older people are in age-restricted communities; their lives rarely intersect. This restructuring has left the country ill-prepared for a world with more Americans living longer lives and more generations living at the same time."
Alboher and Nichols have identified four necessary ingredients to help renew the notion of an intergenerational America:
- A new mindset
The authors write that "Individuals and organizations can begin to make an intergenerational shift by committing to a new mindset—an asset-based lens that combats ageism and leverages the complementary aspirations, gifts, and contributions of old and young."
- More money
Funding for intergenerational programs, whether it is from government or philanthropic organizations, is urgently needed.
- A supportive policy environment
For intergenerational programs to be sustainable, "policies that incentivize intergenerational connection" are required.
- A research agenda
The authors indicate that "Innovators piloting new intergenerational models need research that can drive improvements in practice, and help make the case for expansion and investment."
Alboher and Nichols point out that a model for intergenerational society already exists "in many Indigenous cultures, immigrant communities, and communities of color..." and they suggest we must learn from them:
"We must learn from proven intergenerational traditions and practices, and remix them for modern times, creating a vibrant new social contract that reflects the multigenerational and multicultural reality that is already reshaping the American landscape, and that will be a hallmark of the 21st century."
If we can meet the challenge of age segregation and recreate the age-integrated society of the past, it could have a lasting, beneficial impact on all of us.
Note: Please see the comment below from one of our readers who asks some intriguing questions!