Read Part One of this story.
Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people in the United States over age 55 grew by 27%, 20 times larger than the growth rate of those under 55 (1.3%). In 2020, about 1 in 6 people in the United States were age 65 and over (in 1920, it was less than 1 in 20). By the 2030s, Americans will reach a new milestone: people 65 and over are projected to outnumber all children under age 18. Although rare, five, six – even seven generations of families are living simultaneously.
It isn’t just about longevity. “We’re the most generational diverse era in human history,” says Marc Freedman, Co-CEO of CoGenerate.
Freedman is interested in how arts & culture showcase the power of intergenerational connections. Think Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, the TV shows “Hacks” about the friendship between a legendary Las Vegas comedian and her 25-year-old co-writer, and “Only Murders in the Building” with Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. The documentary Keep on Keepin’ On and collaborations featured in the New York Times that highlight kinships between a wide range of older and younger creative artists.
“Age diversity is profoundly impactful and one of our greatest strengths, causing us to rethink housing, education, work, and service to bring out the best in this new demographic reality,”
says Freedman. “Every project we’ve done, even though we’ve been focusing on purpose in later life, turns out to be a powerful example of how the generations can come together in joint purpose aimed at the greater good.”
He cited several examples, including an Encore Fellows program participant who’d been the head of executive compensation at HP who got matched with the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, which a 20-something executive director led. “They formed an extraordinarily powerful bond,” says Freedman.
Embracing their development as an organization, “We decided to change our name [from Encore to CoGenerate] to reflect not just what older people could do for younger generations, but what older and younger people could do with each other on behalf of people of all ages.”
Together, generations can harness their collective power to impact public policy and more. For example, the Gray Panthers organization combats ageism and fights for social justice through intergenerational collaboration and activism.
It’s also profitable for corporations. Companies have been shown to be more profitable when teams are more ethnically and gender diverse, and so too is it when workforces are intergenerational.
Research done by BMW on multigenerational teams showed that out of an “assembly line of just younger people, an assembly line that was just older people, and one that was a mixed generation, “the mixed generation line was the most effective,” says Eunice Lin Nichols, Co-CEO of CoGenerate.
The book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur Brooks contends that typically, older people are particularly strong in crystallized intelligence and younger people in fluid intelligence and that no workplace should be without both perspectives.
A University of Chicago report and other data showed all generations were eager to work with different generations. Surprisingly, particularly Gen Z.
“There are many things that Gen Z and younger generations are going to need help with to be effective in the world, even to make social change,” says Nichols, suggesting their desires are pragmatic: needing tangible resources like someone with a driver’s license, in a position of power, a mentor at work, and money. “Young people can’t afford to go it alone.”
A multigenerational workplace isn’t all roses and rainbows.
“You can’t assume that if you just throw older and younger people together into a room, that there will just be all these warm fuzzy feelings,”
says Nichols. There can be language and cultural barriers and life perspective differences. Different sets of experiences shape different generations.
“Older adults, as designed by society, have been really isolated from younger generations for many, many years,” says Nichols. So, they may need to be oriented from everything to young people’s culture and language “to the new way that math is taught or the new classroom discipline, and how young people have more voice, more democratized ways of learning in schools. It is really important for older adults to come in and not have a heavy hand, assuming that the way they were educated is the only way or the best way – that their viewpoints are the only valid viewpoints.”
She advises older people to come to the table with an attitude of humility, listening, mutual learning, mutual growth, and the empathy of remembering when they were young. “A young person can and should be desperately interested in an older person’s life and how they got there. That could also be their journey,” says Nichols. Older and younger people sharing stories, working on a common project together where they’re bringing different assets that are needed to the table. “I think the work of CoGenerate and other organizations is to help make sure those bridges are being well cared for.”
“Generations can have stereotypes of each other when they don’t know each other and don’t have a strong personal connection or aren’t working on a shared challenge on a multigenerational team. As with so many things, if you know not just one person but a number of people who are dramatically different than you and have an intentional relationship with them, it’s very difficult to hold onto a stereotype because your daily data contradicts that,” says Nichols. “Generations together can lead to a lot of other kinds of bridging across race, across income, across class, across gender, across culture.”
Cogenerate now: fight the power, be the power together
“In the 20th century, we decided to reorganize society by age,” says Freedman. We put young people in schools with other young people, we put older people in senior centers, nursing homes, and retirement communities, and we cleared the workplace out of older people with mandatory retirement…We’ve got young people in one set of institutions, middle people in another, and older people in the third. And it’s produced a grievous wound of ageism, misunderstanding, generational conflict, isolation, and loneliness,” says Freedman. Older and younger people are the two most socially isolated groups in society.
Multigenerational housing is one of many areas CoGenerate is currently focusing on. There’s a fourfold increase in multigenerational households. Influencing factors include economics and the ability to share financial and social resources, including housing and caregiving. It’s seen more in rural, indigenous, and immigrant households.
“I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but like many immigrant families, as soon as my parents were settled, they sponsored my mom’s parents to come, and they ended up living with me when I was very young. They were basically my afterschool program…They would make sure I had snacks to eat after school, got my homework done, and then practiced my piano. They were really embedded in my life,” says Nichols, adding that it was also an incredible touchpoint with her Chinese culture, including language, food, history, and values.
“My grandparents were a critical part of our ability to function and thrive as a family,” says Nichols. They also gave her a front-row seat to growing older whilst being a deeply vital part of a thriving community.
Intergenerational co-housing has expanded beyond family. “Noelle Marcus, the founder of Nesterly, and Carrie Buck created a home-sharing program by matching housing insecure college students with community members with spare bedrooms in Orange County, CA,” says Freedman. “Our board member Rabbi Laura Geller recently wrote about her own experience sharing her home with a series of young rabbinical students after her husband died.”
“The old idea of separating the generations is not well suited to what we know about human thriving and the new demographics,” says Freedman.
“The three problems we're trying to solve in this new chapter are a failure of imagination, a failure of innovation, and a failure of investment.”
“We’re starting a new prize that’s essentially the next generation of the Purpose Prize with a multigenerational focus,” says Freedman.
CoGenerate also has two new projects that Freedman sees as “serving together and solving together.” The first project focuses on age-integrating America’s big service and volunteer agencies, such as AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps Seniors. The second project highlights and supports “thought leadership challenges where older and younger people come together to solve the big problems of the day,” says Freedman, adding that economic opportunity, as well as social isolation and loneliness, are pressing challenges that need solving. CoGenerate will invest in these entrepreneurs and then showcase the solutions and how they could be adopted more broadly.
In addition to Encore.org, Cogenerate.org, and AARP.org, there is a wealth of data-driven resources to learn about thriving while living longer and meaningful ways to connect with other generations while doing so. Resources include The New Map of Life: 100 Years To Thrive and the essay series Meeting The Multigenerational Moment. CoGenerate’s list of 10 Simple Ways to CoGenerate is an excellent place to begin reading. And MIT’s Age Lab is a multidisciplinary research hub with good information for individuals, businesses, governments, and NGOs.
“We’re trying to make cogeneration credible, doable, and scalable. No one generation can solve climate change or mental health,” says Freedman. But we can rebuild an age-integrated society where all generations fight together for social justice and work toward a shared vision to help make the world a better place. Intergenerational leaders can be anchored in mutual aid, effective action, and abiding joy. “Generations coming together in a way that they can accomplish things and solve community problems that no one group can do alone.”