If you remember the 1960s, you may still carry around in your head the notion that the young and the old don’t have very much in common and don’t really understand each other.
The term “generation gap” was coined by an editor at Look magazine named John Poppy, playing on the Cold War term “missile gap.” His point was that there was a substantive divide in politics, tastes, mores and virtually everything else between the young and the old — with the “old” including everyone over 30.
I’d like to tell you that the generation gap is over, but I’m not sure I can be that bold. We do still like to define and separate the generations — the boomers, the millennials, Gen X and so on. We compartmentalize our society that way. And recent news events, such as the Brexit vote, indicate that there are real differences between how the generations feel on certain issues.
Even in our differences, though, let’s not overlook the very real links between generations. For example, today almost a quarter of America’s caregivers are millennials.
I think in many ways we have entered a new phase, where the young and old generations have formed a kind of partnership for good. As the author Paul Taylor has put it, “The generations like each other.”
I was struck by a report last month from Pew that for the first time in the modern era, more millennials — 32 percent — live with their parents than fall into any other category. Of course there are economic necessities behind this statistic, as well as other factors. But it made me think about the intergenerational bonds that not only can define our families but also can strengthen our communities and our country, as well.
As a daughter and as a mother, I’ve felt so deeply the lifelong lessons we learn from and teach each other across generational lines.
For 18 years as a college president, I saw how students and adults, bringing different perspectives, experiences and questions to bear, could surprise and delight each other. Now, as president of AARP Foundation, I see the same phenomenon of intergenerational engagement at work.
I see it in the acclaimed AARP Foundation Experience Corps, where older adults tutor youngsters in kindergarten through grade three in reading.
I see it in Mentor Up, where teenagers and young adults tutor seniors in technology and connect to them in other ways. I’ve seen it in volunteer efforts, such as our Million Meal Pack event in May, where young people were prominent among the volunteers packing over a million meals for South Florida seniors facing hunger.
Sometimes intergenerational engagement has to overcome skepticism. A 19-year-old in our Grocery Guides program, where volunteers help vulnerable seniors navigate supermarkets for healthy choices at affordable prices, found initial resistance to his involvement — until he began sharing sound advice about nutrition.
Given this hopeful shift away from generational hostility, young people can bring their own brand of experience and energy to the table and become agents of opportunity for individuals across the life span.
Intergenerational cooperation represents an underappreciated asset in our country. It’s so easy to focus on differences and divisions that we can overlook the assets we have to bridge those divisions and develop solutions to the problems that affect all of us. In fact, intergenerational connections are an essential part of building healthy communities and providing opportunities for all individuals, no matter what their age.
What an asset intergenerational engagement can be. The generation gap may not be over, but generational bridges do exist, and we can build more of them, opening new avenues to opportunity.
Please note: I’ll be speaking on this topic at the AARP Intergenerational Approaches Across Health, Wealth and Self conference July 21. Watch for a follow-up post here.