Building Bridges Across the Generational Divide

Despite all the hand-wringing about the graying of America, the needs and assets of older and younger people are complementary. The key is to overcome our habits of age segregation.
At Gorham House in Portland, Maine, a senior residence shares a site with a preschool. Youngsters visit the senior center’s living room to play with the residents, called “Grand Friends,” as seen here last week. Residents also visit the classroom to join in activities. PHOTO: JASON GROW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
At Gorham House in Portland, Maine, a senior residence shares a site with a preschool. Youngsters visit the senior center’s living room to play with the residents, called “Grand Friends,” as seen here last week. Residents also visit the classroom to join in activities. PHOTO: JASON GROW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


Wall Street Journal published this thought-provoking essay by Marc Freedman on Nov 1, 2018:

It’s meant as a joke—and a provocation. In an edgy new get-out-the-vote ad aimed at young people, a half dozen senior citizens taunt the younger generation, calling themselves a “generation of doers” not “whiners.” “Everything’s fine the way it is,” says one of the seniors, as another chimes in, “Climate change? That’s a you problem. I’ll be dead soon.”

The ad recalls Groucho Marx’s famous quip about posterity: “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?” And it reinforces the too-common view of America’s older population as greedy geezers out for themselves, hogging a disproportionate share of society’s resources—a dyspeptic demographic foreshadowing the country’s gray dawn.

Without discounting these challenges, I believe there is reason for optimism and the possibility of a far better outcome—one that could help us to avoid conflict and solve problems such as child care and loneliness, while also generating a good deal of personal happiness along the way. The route to this more uplifting prospect is neither obscure nor abstract. It’s right in front of us, if we shift the lens from fiscal woes to emotional truths. The fact is, for all the hand-wringing about the graying of America, the needs and assets of the generations fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Just ask any grandparent.

There is significant evidence from evolutionary anthropology and developmental psychology that old and young are built for each other. The old, as they move into the latter phases of life, are driven by a deep desire to be needed by the next generation and to nurture it; the young have a need to be nurtured. It’s a complementary relationship that goes back to the beginning of human history.

For many decades, anthropologists tried to understand why women typically lived so long beyond reproductive age. Men could continue reproducing late in life. But from a narrow evolutionary standpoint, postmenopausal women seemed superfluous—until a quarter-century ago, when anthropologist Kristen Hawkes of the University of Utah advanced the “grandmother hypothesis.’’ Based on her research studying hunter-gatherer tribes, Dr. Hawkes found that older women played a critical role gathering food and caring for their daughters’ children, thus enabling the longer gestational period that separates humans from most other species. If not for them, we likely wouldn’t have evolved in the way we did or ended up having such long life spans.

Alison Gopnik, a psychologist and philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley—and a regular contributor to these pages—believes that the evolutionary role of grandmothers in caring for children “may actually be the key to human nature.” Such support, she wrote in 2014, allows for longer childhoods and more time to “grow large brains and to use those brains to learn about the world we live in.”
The Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen, a leading scholar of longevity, comes to similar conclusions, arguing that older people are essential to younger ones and to the well-being of the whole species. As Prof. Carstensen sees it, elders are a potential “cavalry coming over the hill” for the next generation. They tend to feel a growing need for meaningful relationships as they realize that fewer days are ahead of them than behind. They have a deeply rooted instinct to connect in ways that flow down the generational chain. And they possess the virtues of age—patience, persistence and emotional regulation, among others—which are especially helpful in dealing with young people.

But what does all this mean for us today, when foraging for roots and herbs for grandchildren may not be the best use of elders’ time? How can we tap the vast and largely underused talent of the older population to support the next generation, not only within families but across the broader community? How might we adapt the grandmother hypothesis to modern family life?

Despite the powerful fit between the needs of older and younger people, such connections don’t develop easily today because we’ve done so much to thwart them. Over the past century we have undertaken a radical social experiment, transforming American society from one of the most age-integrated in the world to what is, arguably, the most age-segregated.

Historians report that, in the 19th century, there was little consciousness of chronological age in the U.S. Individuals rarely knew their own age or the age of others. Most Americans lived in multigenerational households, working a farmstead together. One-room schoolhouses might include students in their 20s and 30s, sometimes older. In his 1992 book “How Old Are You?,” the Brown University cultural historian Howard Chudacoff explained that America’s “institutions were not structured according to age-defined divisions, and its cultural norms did not strongly prescribe age-related behavior.”

Then industrialization and the assembly-line mentality intervened. Universal schooling gave rise to age-segregated institutions for primary and secondary education. Mandatory retirement and new policies such as Social Security—which set 65 as the definition of old age—accelerated the movement of older people out of the workplace. New institutions like nursing homes and senior centers, for all their advantages, further reinforced the new reality.

By the late 1940s, with lifespans lengthening, many older people felt excluded from much of American life and experienced a lack of purpose. UAW President Walter Reuther described retirees as “too old to work, too young to die.”

The market soon responded by inventing the retirement community, devoted to giving new direction to these “golden years.” The real-estate developer Del Webb, one-time owner of the New York Yankees, opened Sun City, the first large-scale retirement community, in the Arizona desert in 1960. It held out the promise of graying-as-playing, free from the noisy intrusions of the younger generation. On its opening weekend, 100,000 people flocked to the new town, producing the largest traffic jam in state history.

All of these developments have contributed to the unhappy situation that we face today: Young and old rarely encounter each other, ageism is on the rise, and public budgets are increasingly a battleground between clashing generational interests. Most telling perhaps is the fact that the two loneliest groups in the country are younger people and older people, in that order, according to a 2018 survey based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale and conducted by Ipsos for the health insurer Cigna.

Turning things around won’t happen simply or automatically, but there are emerging signs of hope and resilience. Innovators and entrepreneurs across the globe are working to reimagine modern daily life so that connections across generations happen more naturally and frequently.

Singapore offers a dramatic example. The city-state has launched a multibillion-dollar effort to create a “kampong for all ages,” embracing the Malay word for village in an effort to build “a cohesive society with intergenerational harmony.” To bring the generations together, officials are launching initiatives to have preschools share facilities with senior centers, recruit young people to teach technology to older people, and help organizations better use older volunteers. Since 2013 they’ve been building and promoting “3Gen flats,” designed for families to house grandparents and grandchildren under one roof. They’re also spending about $150 million to underwrite an innovation challenge to seek new ideas and research that promote productive aging.

If Singapore represents a grand plan, in the U.K. there’s the example of a charismatic Pied Piper. Two years ago, Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway, then 57, co-founded a group called Now Teach and then announced that she was leaving her job to become one of its recruits. She began training to become a math teacher in a low-income London school.

Ms. Kellaway challenged her readers over 50 to quit their jobs and join her. “Of the 35,000 who started teacher training in the U.K. last year, almost none of them—a mere 100—were over 55,” she wrote last year. “We were sure there were lots of fiftysomethings who wanted to teach.” In response to this challenge, a thousand older people applied for 47 slots, highlighting the longing of many older people to invest in the development of the next generation. Most, though not all, started as certified teachers this fall. Now Teach expanded beyond London this year and is training 80 new recruits. It has inspired other U.K. groups to try to develop new ways to tap older talent.

In the U.S., a number of entrepreneurs have been working for decades to bring the generations together, but only recently have they begun to find a small measure of philanthropic and government support.

In 2017, I visited Gorham House, a retirement and assisted living facility outside Portland, Maine, which was built around a preschool back in 1990. It turns out that the most coveted rooms for retirees are the ones nearest the children’s playground. The facility’s website proclaims to parents that Gorham’s early childhood program has a competitive advantage over other options: a built-in community of surrogate grandparents, whom Gorham calls “Grand Friends.” In Miami, a similar combination of activities evolved from a senior center to which grandparents often brought their grandchildren; it has become the home of Rainbow Intergenerational Child Care.

There are now more than 100 such “shared sites” in the U.S., pairing youths and elders for joint activities, according to a report published this year by the nonprofit group Generations United and the Eisner Foundation. An initiative launched at Ohio State in 2015, for instance, involves the university’s students in operating a program in Columbus that brings together preschoolers and seniors.

Higher education, long a bastion of age segregation, is also getting more direct intergenerational attention. Harvard, Stanford and the University of Minnesota have begun programs in the last decade aimed at helping people over 50 change careers or find fresh uses for their experiences in retirement. The older students take most classes alongside their younger counterparts, bringing real-life perspective to class discussions. Harvard calls it a “third stage of education.”

Other intergenerational efforts are aimed at promoting social and economic connections between young and old. In 2016, two recent graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began operating Nesterly, a start-up pairing older people who had room to spare in their homes with university students in need of reduced rent and able to do chores. The program, so far active just in Boston, is part of a pilot with the city’s government to provide affordable housing, help local homeowners and increase community stability. Last year in southern Oregon, Grandmas2Go launched with an initial cadre of 20 “Grandmas”—older people trained as coaches to help support struggling new parents and their babies. The program is in the process of going statewide.

Intergenerational proximity has often brought with it not just support but a flowering of relationships. In Cleveland, a senior living community called Judson Manor created an artist-in-residence program in 2010 providing free housing for graduate music students, who agree to perform for the residents and participate in meals and other activities. When one young violist living at Judson became engaged in 2014, she asked her 90-something neighbor to be part of the wedding party.

The reach of these various early efforts is modest, especially in relation to the scale of the social shift we’re facing. They underscore, however, the need to rethink how to live later life in ways that go with the grain of human development. Rather than trying so hard to be young, to cling to our faded youth, we need to be there for those who actually are young. To achieve this, we must be as creative at inventing institutions that bring Americans together as we have been over the past century in crafting ones that split us apart. Why not start our own equivalent of Singapore’s innovation challenge?

Making the most of the multigenerational world that’s already upon us is one of the surest routes to happiness in our longer lives. The psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, tracking hundreds of men for decades, found that those in middle age or older who invest in nurturing the next generation are three times as likely to be happy as those who fail to do so. As he put it, “biology flows downhill.”

Of all the things that divide us, the gap between old and young is arguably the most bridgeable. Connecting across generations is not only pragmatic, it’s an essential part of the human experience and a key to the cycle of life. After all, the young will soon be the old—likely faster than they ever imagined.