For the first time in U.S. history, people sixty and over now outnumber those 18 and younger. Yet we still live in a youth-centric culture that reinforces the separation of people based on age.
Separation in the Workplace, in Our Neighborhoods and in Schools
Research suggests that workers over fifty have more than a 50% chance of being pushed out of their jobs before they are ready to leave. Hiring language like “energetic” and “enthusiastic” signal that certain workplaces belong to the young.
Neighborhoods tend to be separated by age with “six in 10 leaning either young or old.” We do tend to gravitate towards our own groups or tribes. As we get older, it can be appealing to live in quiet communities without the noise and activity of children. And parents with younger children often look for neighborhoods with other children and schools nearby.
Our education system reinforces age separation as well with a designated number of years that younger people will be engaged in active learning. Many of our institutions of higher education also reinforce the view that education is for the young through various recruiting strategies.
Reinforcing Age-based Stereotypes
A lack of contact between older generations and younger ones can lead to age-based stereotypes and prejudices. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor noted that many people believe that “older populations consume resources that would otherwise go to youth…” Of course, stereotypes go both directions; older people often do make assumptions about younger people when they don’t have the first-hand experience with them beyond their own family members.
Volunteers Help Bridge the Gap
A lack of contact between older generations and younger ones hurts everyone. Writing for Next Avenue, Sally Abrahms wrote, “When generations work together, this can break down stereotypes, change attitudes, foster mutual empathy, and improve communities.
One way some older adults are bridging the age gap is through volunteering. Those of us who are older have a lot to offer younger people. Dr. Carstensen pointed out that older adults often have better complex problem-solving skills and emotional skills than younger people. We have a lot to offer in terms of counsel and experience.
Benefits for Youth
Younger people, especially disadvantaged youth, could benefit from having relationships with mature, older adults. Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org reported that research his team did found that youth who had mentors were significantly less likely to use drugs, engage in violent behavior. “Relationships with adults matter in young people’s lives.”
Benefits for Older Adults
In addition to a greater sense of purpose, research suggests that volunteering to work with younger people could be beneficial for our mental and physical health. In one study, volunteers who tutored students through Experience Corps for six months demonstrated improved cognitive functioning.
Sometimes volunteering can involve an exchange of knowledge. For example, older adults may offer knowledge or particular skills a younger person needs. Some younger people may help older adults with newer technical skills and knowledge.
What are your thoughts about connections across generations?