People are living longer today. But how do we make sure those extra years are good ones?
For people in wealthy countries, it’s a question of increasing urgency. In 2019, for the first time ever, there were more Americans over age 60 than under age 18. One in three of babies born in the UK will live to see their 100th birthday, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics. These demographic shifts raise the question of how the 60-plus set will find purpose and meaning in their second and third acts of life—elements which are key to happiness.
Author and social entrepreneur Marc Freedman has one idea. “The real fountain of youth is in the same place it’s always been,” he said at a longevity conference in London. “The real fountain of youth is the fountain with youth.” In other words: Spending time with kids and young adults.
The architecture of Western societies today keeps generations apart from one another. A recent UK parliamentary inquiry (pdf) into intergenerational connection found that levels of segregation between retirees and young adults had roughly doubled between 2001 and 2018; during the same period, children’s chances of living near someone over 65 fell from 15 to 5 percent.
That’s a shame, according to Freedman. As he writes (paywall) in the Wall Street Journal, ”for all the hand-wringing about the graying of America, the needs and assets of the generations fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.” That’s why, in places from Singapore to London to Cleveland, Ohio, organizations are working to try and help the young and old forge connections.
The Case for Intergenerational Friendships
In 1938, amidst the dark days of the Great Depression, scientists began tracking the health of 268 Harvard sophomores. They hoped the study, which would eventually track those men, their children, and their wives, as well as a sizable control group, for more than 80 years, would reveal what factors constituted a healthy, long, and happy life. Dubbed the Harvard Study of Adult Development (and often referred to as the Grant study), it is one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, rich with data about their physical and mental health.
Its main finding? Relationships deeply affect people’s physical and mental health—including relationships with younger generations. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist who led the study for decades, found that those in middle age or older who invest in nurturing the next generation were three times as likely to be happy as those who fail to do so. “Biology flows downhill,” he said.
Intergenerational friendships provide huge benefits to young people, too. In one of the most famous longitudinal studies (pdf) to look at resilience—why some kids thrive under adversity and others do not—a team of mental health workers, pediatricians, public health nurses, and social workers followed the development of nearly 700 children from Kauai, Hawaii, from age one to age 40.
After four decades, it became clear that the children who faced great adversity but thrived were those who had the support of one caregiver—often a grandparent or an older member of the community. “Children who succeeded against the odds had the opportunity to establish, early on, a close bond with at least one competent, emotionally stable person who was sensitive to their needs,” the study notes. “Much of this nurturing came from substitute caregivers, such as grandparents, older siblings, aunts, and uncles. Resilient children seemed to be especially adept at ‘recruiting’ such surrogate parents.”
“Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her,” Freedman said, citing child psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner. Friendships between the young and old are also a natural fit: Older generations have time and love to give; younger ones are very much in need of both. Parents meanwhile, are often bereft of time, and in search of any support they can get.
It Wasn’t Always This Way
Freedman points out that generations weren’t always so stratified. Parents, children and grandparents used to live and work together. But hard-fought advancements, including the introduction of child labor laws and universal education, meant that the family unit was increasingly separated. Meanwhile, as older people started living longer, retirement communities sprang up to house them, wit the aspiration of turning the graying years into “golden” ones. (When Sun City, the first retirement community in the US, opened in 1960 in the Arizona desert, 100,000 people turned up, producing what Freedman describes as “the largest traffic jam in state history.”)
Clearly, moving children from factories to schools was a good idea, and retirement communities are a necessity with so many adult children living far from their parents. But the upshot is that there are few structures that bring together generations. Interestingly, the two largest groups in society who report being loneliest are the young and the old.
That separation has also led to more agism, as old age becomes associated not with experience and wisdom, but with higher health-care costs, sickness, and loneliness. It was not always so, Laura Carstensen, founder of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a professor of psychology at Stanford, said at at the inaugural Longevity Forum in London on Nov. 5. In 1900, 25 percent of children died before age five, and many more before age 12. “Death wasn’t strongly associated with old age but with young life.”
Bringing the Old and Young Together
Freedman, in his 2018 book How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, explains that it doesn’t have to be this way. Freedman himself started Experience Corp in the US in 1996 to help older people to teach younger children to read. Independent research showed the kids learned more, teachers welcomed the help, and the “tutors” were happier. Today, he’s the CEO and founder of Encore.org, which connects retiring adults with internships at nonprofits as a way to provide talent to organizations, including those that might not already be looking at the above-65 set.
In his book, Freedman looks at a range of other initiatives. Singapore, for example, is investing $3 billion to build “a cohesive society with intergenerational harmony,” including co-locating eldercare and childcare facilities “to maximize opportunities for inter-generational interactions.
For his research, Freedman also visited Judson Manor, a senior living community in Cleveland which hosts an artist-in-residence program, providing free housing for graduate music students who in turn perform for the residents and join in meals and other activities. According to Freedman’s Wall Street Journal piece, “When one young violist living at Judson became engaged in 2014, she asked her 90-something neighbor to be part of the wedding party.”
There are other efforts to bridge the generational divide to help combat loneliness. In Norfolk, Friend In Deed runs the Little Visitors scheme, where young mothers with babies visit seniors in the Badgers Wood Care home. The Cares Family, a charity with branches in London, Manchester, and Liverpool, creates social gatherings for young professionals and older people such as dance parties, cooking clubs, podcasting clubs, and dim sum lunches. The charity also has an outreach program to help connect those in need with services, and a one-one-one matching service to connect in people’s homes. Research shows these programs are effective at combatting loneliness and improving social connectedness.
“When older people and younger people share time, there’s magic,” Alex Smith, founder and CEO of the Cares Family, said at the longevity conference. “Younger people get a sense of pause from their everyday lives, a sense of connection to another generation and a different set of life experiences, as well as a sense of community.”
The program helps change the way both younger and older people experience the cities in which they live. While many young people come to places like London or Manchester for the diverse cultural and economic opportunities, they often end up alone, or with only people like themselves. Meanwhile, older people, eager to explore what is new in their cities—like new restaurants or cocktail clubs—may feel those spaces are off-limits to them; younger people can introduce them to those spaces. “It’s a way for older people to reclaim their city through physical space and shared storytelling,” he added.
While there is a popular narrative that older generations have robbed younger ones of future prosperity, Smith says the generations have more in common than not. Almost eight in 10 people between 18 and 24 and the over-65s want life to slow down, and social care for older people remains the second-highest concern for 18-to-34-year-olds. The issue is not whether they have anything in common, but how to connect them.
One of the most important things about intergenerational friendships is that they serve as a reminder that there is no predetermined lifestyle that accompanies getting older. “Aging itself is malleable; it is a moving target,” says Carstensen. “We can influence how it unfolds.” Freedman, meanwhile, thinks we can help aging happen in a way that connects people together, rather than isolating them. “We can fix it,” he said. “And in the process it can fix us.”