Let’s End Age-Segregation!

David Bradshaw
Jan 28 · 10 min read

Introduction

TODAY there’s a transformational movement beginning to gain traction worldwide among baby boomers to reimagine their second half of life.

“How To Live Forever” by Marc Freedman offers readers a preview into this brave new intergenerational future where the gifts and talents of an aging population fit hand-in-glove to meet the needs of a younger generation seeking the encouragement of true mentors.

Author and founder of Encore.org Marc Freedman presents an impassioned call to readers to accept the longevity decades now opening up between midlife and old age as an entirely new stage of life, which he dubs the “encore” years. Marc reminds us that in the U.S. 10,000 people a day are turning age 60, and for the first time in American history we now have more older people than younger ones.

As I wrote in my book review of Marc’s last bestseller, THE BIG SHIFT (2012) “Freedman leads readers on an exciting guided tour of the growth of ‘Third Stage of Life’ thinking over the last century — marking the end of the retirement era popularized over the last 60 years — and the birth of a new reinspirement era…. He sees this emerging encore stage as a win-win situation for all ages, announcing that it’s ‘a windfall of talent, a new crown of life — a second chance at fulfillment and contribution — a time to grow up.’”

In his latest inspired sequel Freedman asserts something rather obvious yet often overlooked; the young and the old are built for each other. “The old are driven by a deep desire to be needed by and to nurture the next generation; the young have a need to be nurtured,” writes Freedman.

Marc has followed his passion to engage older people’s untapped talents to help alleviate young people’s unmet needs over the last three decades, with ambitious projects including; Encore.org, Civic Ventures, Experience Corps and now Gen2Gen.org.

Freedman feels strongly that modern American culture has been age-segregated for far too long, which has stunted a deeply rooted instinct to connect the generational chain. Surveys show a high degree of mutual respect exists between boomers and millennials. Marc encourages boomers to “resist the mandate to go off in pursuit of their own second childhood. Instead of trying to be young, we should focus on being there for those who actually are [young].”

In the eight short chapters that follow Freedman unpacks how and why “Age Apartheid” is hindering both young and old and then offers readers scores of examples of courageous age-connecting models that are popping up all over the nation and the world thanks to intentional, innovative grassroots efforts.

Freedman says we must choose between two paths forward, prompted by new demographics of today’s more-old-than-young world; “one path characterized by scarcity, conflict and loneliness; the other by abundance, interdependence and connection…The path we choose, “will determine not only our collective ability to navigate the multi-generational world already upon us, but also our individual ability to find the keys to happiness and fulfillment in the second half of life.”

Cheating Death Amounts to Cheating Life

“While we have added years to life, it is time to add life to those years.” — John F. Kennedy, 1963 speech

“1 in 3 Babies Born Today Will Live to 100,” reads a Prudential insurance billboard… “Let’s get ready for a longer retirement,” says the tagline. The trend toward expanding human longevity is also heavily promoted by the tech titans, and forever-young entrepreneurs who envision A.I. surpassing human intelligence as well as striving to erase death entirely.

This philosophy attempts to lay an axe to the root of human mortality, creativity, and man’s uniqueness as created in God’s image. As Marc puts it, “Silicon Valley’s death-cheating efforts amount to a colossal case of misplaced attention and resources…cheating death amounts to cheating life.”

In contrast, Freedman is in agreement with Steve Jobs, who told the Stanford graduating class of 2005, “Death is the single best invention of life,” clearing out the old, making way for the new. “Remembering that I will be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices of life,” Jobs explained.

“Death ends a life, not a relationship,” reflects Freedman on the saying of one of his college professors and mentor, Morrie Schwartz. Relationships are a critical ingredient in well-being, particularly as we age according to the Harvard Study of Human Development first launched in 1938.

“I am what survives me,” said Erik Erikson, the great pioneer of adult development. He coined the term “generativity” as the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.

The Power of a Loving Adult

“…faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” -I Corinthians 13:13

What do resilient children that grow up to be caring, competent and confident adults have in common? According to psychologist Emmy Werner; The presence of a caring adult beyond the immediate family — a mentor, an aunt, a coach, a teacher, a neighbor who took the younger person under his/her wing…Involvement in a community group, church or the Y also proved to be an important buffer from the corrosive force of negative circumstances.

Cornell professor and child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner famously concluded, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.”

Freedman highlights the results of several programs which prove his premise that connecting caring adults with young people, who didn’t already have them on their own, would benefit them greatly. Programs such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters as well as Foster Grandparents have shown the positive effect of loving adults investing time developing relationships with children.

The Rebranding of Retirement

“Too old to work, too young to die.” -Walter Reuther, UAW president

“The dream of graying as playing. The rise of age-segregated, seniors-only sunshine cities would come to embody the new norm for the golden years,” writes Freedman. This “age apartheid” had a humble beginning in Youngtown, Arizona, but soon expanded nationwide. The goal: “to make elderly people not feel old.”

The rise of mass advertising campaigns portraying this period in life as a time of freedom and leisure dovetailed with 1960 launch of Del Webb’s massive Sun City retirement community. Mr. Webb is credited with first coining the phrase “the golden years” while heavily promoting the illusion of a second childhood using the philosophy that… “if everyone is old, then no one is old.”

Sixty years later, demographers find that age-segregation in America is often as deep-seated as racial segregation. About one third of people over 55 reside in communities of same-age peers. According to Freedman, “Without proximity, friendships don’t easily form across the generations…this contributes to loneliness, described as the single most significant public health issue of our time.”

Reflecting on America’s history, Freedman reminds readers that when Puritans arrived in Massachusetts in 1629 they lived short lives, revered age and considered white hair as a “crown of gold”. Historians termed the Puritan colonies a ‘gerontocracy’, but by the 19th century, age as status began to unravel, despite multiple generations still living under the same roof.

“That all changed in the 20th century,” writes Freedman. American society began to recognize childhood as a distinct life stage. Later life went from being considered ‘divinely blessed’ to being deemed a medical condition…Institutions like nursing homes sprang up to warehouse these human artifacts on the periphery of society…the enactment of Social Security in 1934 hardened the definition of old age.”

Marc somberly concludes, “In a single century we’d gone from one of the most age-integrated nations on earth to its mirror opposite…In the end, culture and institutions lined up to radically reroute the river of life.”

The Mysterious Love Between Generations

“The reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy — parents.” -Sam Levenson, Comedian

In 1997, together with his beloved mentor 85-year old John W. Gardner — former secretary of HEW who was responsible for implementing Medicare, Older Americans Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act — Freedman launched a new program called Experience Corps, a domestic Peace Corps-like program, engaging older people to help the next generation thrive.

Mr. Gardener saw “purpose in life” as the most important and neglected challenge facing older people…“never before have they been so firmly shouldered out of every significant role in life — in the family, in the world of work and in the community,” said Gardener.

“John believed Experience Corps could unleash the time, talent and know-how of older Americans to revitalize civil society…this is in one sense our ‘operation give back.’” The primary goal was to mobilize older people to help low-income children by asking volunteers to pledge a minimum of 15 hours per week for forge strong relationships.

After the first year of testing in five U.S. cities they were encouraged to find students scored 60% better on essential literacy skills and behavioral problems went down 30–50%. “That mysterious love between generations had profoundly practical effects…Experience Corps members showed new activation in areas of the brain involved with complex problem-solving.”

“Today Experience Corps engages 2,300 old adults to help 31,000 low-income children in more than 20 cities. In 2011, AARP adopted the program, invested in it and put it in a better position to grow,” writes Freedman.

From Independence to Interdependence

“In America we have a Declaration of Independence, but our history, our advancements, our global strength all point to an American declaration of interdependence.” -Cory Booker, Politician

In pondering how best to break the legacy of age-separation and segregation, Freedman spent several years traveling the nation and the globe in search of innovative ideas about how local communities, educational institutions and workplaces were planting “seeds of change.”

Marc discovered three basic types of “dreamers and schemers” working to bring the generations together for mutual benefit; “Inventors, who are dreaming up radical new ideas; Integrators, who are bringing existing institutions, like senior centers and preschools together; and Infiltrators, who are typically injecting old or younger people into settings where you might not have found them previously.”

Freedman singles out one example of an Inventor; The Treehouse Foundation in Easthampton, MA — a model of multi-generational living crafted to promote inter-generational connections and a small town feel. Foster parents and adoptive families get the supportive community they need and older people live among them, enabling them to become surrogate grandparents while developing a rich network of peers along the way.

Marc points to encouraging trends among a few major home builders who are offering deliberately age-mixed developments as more boomers make room for millennial children or aging parents. “Lennar is promoting its NextGen model…Pardee Homes launched GenSmart Suite to allow multiple generations to once again live together.”

Judson Manor, located in Cleveland, OH is an example Freeman gives of Integrators. Judson houses 120 seniors and 7 graduate students from the nearby Cleveland Institute of Music. The facility serves as affordable housing for students who agree to play music to entertrain the residents and participate in meals and other community events.

The “power of proximity” helped bridge the generational gap at both Judson and at Gorham House — a retirement and assisted living facility in Portland Maine, which is located next to Gorham preschool — “which has a competitive advantage of having a built-in army of surrogate grandparents, bastions of caring and love, waiting to do their thing…At Gorham House, the most coveted rooms are the ones nearest the children’s playground.”

“Its not easy to change culture and institutions. It took a powerful wave of change to separate people by age, and it will take an equally forceful and imaginative counterwave to bring people together again,” says Freedman.

It’s Time To Go With The Flow

“The further human society drifts away from nature, the less we understand interdependence.” -Peter Senge, Scientist

An underground stream known as Strawberry Creek in Berkeley, CA is slowly being uncovered and rediscovered — this reminds Marc of what American culture has done to the spirit of generativity over the last half century.

“Today a mere 1% of philanthropy goes into anything related to aging or engagement across generations, writes Freedman.

The Eisner Foundation has emerged as a model dedicated to bringing the generations together from mutual benefit…this represents a 21st century back-to-nature movement. Only this time it’s back to human nature…” Freedman reminds readers that the stream of connected generations has been flowing since the beginning of time.

Our word “mentor” originates from The Odyssey, as ‘Mentor’ the wise old character whom Odysseus entrusts the care of his son, Telemachus, as he goes off to war.

Freedman’s heartfelt call is to age-integrate, instead of remaining stuck in age-segregated communities, schools and workplaces that drive a wedge between young and old.

“If we stood in front of a whiteboard and tried to design the perfect human resource for kids, it would be a group that’s vast and growing, with time on its hands, inclined toward connection, in possession of abundant skills, and driven not you to relationship but by generativity. In other words, older people.”

To help promote a national change of direction, Freedman has launched the Generation to Generation (Gen2Gen.org) campaign — “to help build a society where older people standing up for younger ones becomes both the expectation and the norm in later life. Our rallying cry: a better future for future generations.”

Conclusion: How to “Live Mortal”

“A human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species. The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.” -Carl Jung, Psychologist

An excellent documentary film, “Keep on Keeping On,” (2014) which Freedman spotlights vividly illustrates how the world’s greatest jazz trumpet player, Clark Terry, focused his twilight years on passing his expertise in the jazz tradition on to the next generation.

For over a decade Mr. Terry coached a blind young piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin. An extraordinary friendship developed until Terry’s death in 2015 at age 94. This is a very inspiring film I decided to watch for myself. It is very touching (I recommend keeping the kleenex handy).

“Society grows great when older people plant trees under whose shade they will never sit,” says the old Greek proverb.

Freedman concludes his clarion call to action with a challenge that we must not wait too long.

“Planting, tending, bequeathing to the next generation — it’s an essential human project, one we’ve long understood yet let slip over the past half century…The real fountain of youth is the fountain with youth. And the only true way to live forever is to live together…”

After reading this book I decided to volunteer with Gen2Gen.org here in Phoenix, AZ. After reading “How To Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting Generations”… you just might decide to do the same!

If you are interested in some amazing spiritual insights on mentoring the next generation, see The Mentor’s Mentor, my book review of ON the BRINK OF EVERYTHING: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old by PARKER J. PALMER.

David Bradshaw

Written by

Contemplative reader, writer, musician

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