A new intergenerational movement to bring the young and the aging together

Today’s youngest will grow up experiencing a new phenomenon in human history: being alive at the same time as four to five generations. As further explained by the author of that insight, Prof. Laura Carstensen of Stanford University, that’s a boon to young people as well as society due to the wealth of wisdom, support, and social engagement that older people have to offer. But in order to fully tap into seniors as a valuable societal resource, Carstensen notes, we need a national movement to update the ways in which we view and promote intergenerational relationships.

In a new joint report by the Stanford Center on Longevity, Encore.org, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Carstensen and her colleagues present many ideas to do just that while sparking a broader conversation. As its introduction states:

Today’s aging population, the largest senior cohort the world has known, offers a potent synergy for society, and for youth specifically. The very attributes that older people possess – the often-overlooked gains that come with aging–are ideally attuned to key needs of today’s younger generation.

Simply stated, older people’s qualities and their affinity for purpose and engagement position them to make critical contributions to the lives of youth who need help the most. At the same time, such engagement fulfills older people’s desire for a sense of meaning and purpose, which in turn promotes well-being. Mutually meaningful relationships develop for both old and young

Among the proposals are practical policies that would build on existing efforts, such as the following:

Establishing Intergenerational Zones. Living situations also can foster intergenerational engagement by making it convenient for older people to interact with youth. Communities can explore zoning that concentrates talent, advocacy, and philanthropy, to improve outcomes that are key to the development of children and youth — bringing together key service organizations in a city to infuse the idea of older people working with youth in everything they do.

…. The idea of “co-housing” or “shared” or “joint-use sites” has been around for years, 22 but has typically lacked funding. Small federal grants could encourage co-housing, which could be built into HUD or other senior programs. The Corporation for National and Community Service may be another potential funding source.

Building Intergenerational Collaboration into Existing Programs. The countless government programs at all levels that interact with aging Americans and with youth can serve as vehicles to inform people of all ages about opportunities to join the intergenerational movement. For instance, Medicare officials and websites could distribute information to enrollees about programs needing volunteers to mentor youth. Or PTAs across the country could identify and recruit senior citizens in their communities to join them as special ambassadors for intergenerational programs, or local YMCAs could inform youth and older people about intergenerational programs in their communities.

Young-Old Pairings in Public Schools. Our schools provide a ready environment for utilizing the skills and motivations of older people. In areas where AARP Experience Corps has volunteer tutors in schools, the results on reading improvement have been positive. These and similar efforts can be scaled up with greater awareness on the part of school districts, recruitment and incentive efforts, and buy-in from both schools and seniors. School districts could formalize training for older adults to work with students. For example, Save the Children utilized Foster Grandparents to tutor low-income rural children, with very strong research evidence of associated improvement in academic performance.

We’ve yet to fully grasp the implications of these demographic changes for how we live, learn, work, and play, but even the glimpses into the possibilities are exciting. Given the aging of our population and the needs of our youth, those possibilities are also well worth the attention and support of policymakers. For more information, please see “Hidden in Plain Sight: How Intergenerational Relationships Can Transform Our Future,” a joint report by the Stanford Center on Longevity, Encore.org, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation (2016).