Labels rub us wrong. They scratch our collars on shirts and waists on pants. Men’s and women’s, all patterns and colors, whether cheap or fancy. A real scourge. The only thing more uncomfortable is when labels are attached to people, literally – as with race, heritage, sexual orientation, social and economic class, and age. Then it’s prejudice.
For the most part, people labels are being challenged; yet ageism not only persists, it’s growing. And “generation-ism” is both a cause and effect.
There’s the “Silent Generation (born in 1945 and before),” “Baby Boomers” (1946-1964), “Gen X” (1965-1980), “Gen Y” or “Millennials” (1981-2000) and “Gen Z” (2001 and later). Ask yourself, who but demographers, sociologists, marketers and media do these age demarcations benefit? To them, they make total sense, to the rest of us the labels are pretentious, pandering, protean nonsense. What’s more, for as many individuals who match the assigned characteristics in an age demo (which, for the record, vary dramatically by source?!), arguably, as many don’t.
On top of this obvious stereotyping, there’s an even bigger problem with labeling age: it promotes segregation. People who should be united become divided from each other.
FOR PRACTICAL INTENTS AND PURPOSES
Connecting people of different ages shows how much we’re alike, not different; breaking down counterproductive barriers. This direction is more vital now than ever as our population shifts in an unprecedented manner: older adults’ numbers are increasing, youngsters’ numbers are declining, and more years are separating the extremes.
The good news is respect between generations is improving and, according to research, conflict is lessening. Which makes now — for practical intents and purposes — the best time to demonstrate the multiple reasons why and how aging together is mutually beneficial.
The goal here is called generativity, which means people of all ages supporting one another. When it works, challenges become win-win opportunities. Generational game-changers provide economic, educational and experiential benefits — what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls the “generativity revolution.”
Among the best — label-arresting, culture advancing — practices are those which encourage generations to live, learn, work and share experiences with one another. Genuine progress is made when we:
LIVE TOGETHER. NYU is partnering with several local assisted living communities to hook up students who need housing with residents who have spare rooms. “Beer Pong at Grandma’s?” was the headline of an article on the innovative program. Students who opt in to the home-stay program can slice their $14,000 per-year housing costs nearly in half, the program claims, with a fair percentage of the cost savings going to the older roomie.
This off-shoot of the sharing or gig economy is taking off with other universities around the country. Some pan-generational housemates also share transportation expenses, meals (maybe with beer or wine), home chores and schoolwork, and best of all friendship. The ideal scenario, these ageless connections become commonplace.
LEARN TOGETHER. Programs across the country are encouraging multiple generations to share campuses, courses and interests — including entertainment, in at least one case. A unique media literacy program in New York engaged older adults and youngsters in the exploration of ageist portrayals in media.
Schools and older adult communities combine regular personal visits with social media and Skyping between to empower cross-generational socialization and learning experiences.
With increases in both multi-generation homes and informal caregiving, schools have an opportunity, if not obligation, to respond to the challenges of an aging population with formal education and training.
WORK TOGETHER. Brooks Brothers, the nation’s oldest clothier, prides itself on structuring workplace environments and schedules to combine the experience of veteran employees with ambition of new hires. Renowned longevity advocate Robert N. Butler, M.D. asked, “Is it reasonable for people to spend a quarter of their adult life in retirement?” Not when they have more to contribute – as individuals and to society.
Why become an economic dependency when intergenerational workforces can add to economic productivity? Creative “retooling” of workstations and life-stations, like Brooks Brothers and other progressive employers are doing, exploit the coincidence of private gain and public interest.
SHARE EXPERIENCES. More than three in four people wish there were more opportunities in their communities for people of different ages to meet and engage with one another, according to the Generations United and Eisner Foundation May 2017 report, I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, The Old, and What We Can Achieve Together.
Filled with strategies for advocacy and program development, the authors included this suggestion: “Smile at someone much older or younger than you. … You never know what will happen from there.” As the population of the United States grows older, our culture should do more to take advantage of the natural affinity between young and old.
World travel creates sharable experiences and life lessons. Closer intergenerational bonds are more obvious in European societies where people of all ages get together to dine and drink, enjoy music and sports, and have actual conversations.
By living, learning, working and sharing with one another, the sum of generations become better than the individual ages. And those pesky labels, they become irrelevant to our culture’s fabric.