I recently read an article in US & World News Report that stated that by the year 2040 the number of people in the world over the age of 65 will double from 506 million to 1.3 billion. That’s 14% of the total world population. This got me to thinking about the tremendous (and ever-widening) generation gap that exists in the United States.
In general, there is a disconnect and lack of communication and interaction between people of different ages within our society. Taking into consideration the large demographic shift which is about to occur, I think it’s time we started addressing this gap.
So I am asking myself–and you–what I believe are some very important questions:
1. What factors are contributing to the generation gap?
2.What are the implications of the generation gap?
3.How do we begin to bridge the gap?
Here a some of my thoughts: (I encourage you all to do a little brainstorming of your own, and share your ideas below).
It seems to me, that to a large extent, our generation gap can be attributed to the nature of our institutions. I say this, because institutions give a society it’s structure, and because of this, the nature of a society’s institutions will always be reflected in the nature of it’s citizens–mirrored in their relationships, behaviors, and values… They are inextricably intertwined, because they feed off one another.
So what sorts of relationships, behaviors and values do U.S. institutions promote?
*Lets consider what a typical day in the life of a U.S. citizen looks like, and try to connect the dots (between institution, relationships, behaviors and values):
If you are a child, you are sent off to a public school or daycare center, where you spend the majority of your time interacting with children your own age. If you are a working class adult, you spend 8-12 hours a day at a job (you may or may not enjoy). If you work with others, it’s likely they too are working class–young to middle age adults– somewhat close to your own age.
If you are over the age of 65 you might spend your days at a senior center, you might live in a retirement community, or–if your health is failing–you might live in a nursing home. Regardless of the age category you fall into, it is likely that you will spend the majority of your day surrounded by people of a similar age.
Clearly, our institutions promote segregation of different generations. In order to get a better understanding of the sorts of behaviors and values this gives rise to–and how this affects society as a whole, lets consider how different generations ( youth, young & middle aged adults, and the elderly) are affected.
How does the generation gap affect children?
Well first off, let’s consider the natural, intended relationship between adults (including parents and elders) and children. –Essentially, children are born blank slates; they know nothing of the world; they are completely dependent upon adults for literally everything. So it is the responsibility of adults to equip children with the tools they will need to live healthy, happy, productive lives. Some of these tools include: knowledge, skills, emotional intelligence, and a sense of self-worth and social responsibility.
Teaching and instilling these “tools” and qualities requires time and attention; two things which many children in our society are not getting enough of from older generations. It seems to me then, that social institutions which promote the segregation of generations also promote the neglect of our children–which gives rise to undesirable behaviors.
According to Amy McCready in her article “Why Do Children Really Misbehave” (in Time magazine), the amount of quality time and attention children receive from caregivers directly impacts their sense of significance and personal power. She goes on to say that when children do not feel this sense of significance and power, they are more likely to act out and misbehave (in order to gain attention).
It’s interesting to me that these are two of the “symptoms” exhibited by many children diagnosed with ADHD (attention Deficit Hyper Disorder). It’s also interesting that the number of children diagnosed with ADHD in the U.S. increases every year .. Just as our generation gap continues to widen… Could there be a connection? I think so.
I think it’s also very apparent that if parents and elders do not take the time to share knowledge and skills, and make emotional connections with our children, we will end up losing these things… If we are not careful we will end up living in a society full of emotionally challenged derelicts who do not understand or value the interconnectedness of themselves and others (and all of life).
Sometime I feel like we already live in that sort of society, and I want to be a part of a positive change. Which is why I keep this blog, and why I started the Mother Mana project… But I digress… Lets move on to discuss young and middle aged adults.
How does the generation gap affect young and middle aged adults?
As a young adult, and member of Generation “Y,” I can tell you that I feel a great deal of pressure to stimulate the economy. And sometimes it feels as if our institutions are built with that as the main focus and drive. That is: to create an environment that is as conducive as possible to the stimulation of the economy via production and consumption.
Young and middle aged adults make up the majority of the working class. And to be a member of the working class in a capitalistic, profit driven society, where consumption is fuel for the economy can be extremely draining and stressful. –Because consumption requires production, and production requires energy and resources. –Your energy and resources; my energy and resources; the planet’s energy and resources.
It can be especially stressful if you are a member of the working class who is awake and aware enough to realize that in order for such an economy to continue in perpetuity, inexhaustible resources are required…But we live on a finite planet, with finite resources…
If you are aware of this, you have a responsibility to do something about it; to make a positive change.. You have the responsibility of creating–or at least seeking out and participating in–alternative economies that are driven by wisdom and ethics rather than profits and margins.
You have the responsibility of using resources wisely (even though it’s been made SO easy and convenient not to). You have the responsibility of creating regenerative, sustainable communities. And you have the responsibility of helping others wake up to the interconnectedness of all life. (Maybe I digressed a bit here…but maybe not…it’s totally relevant)…All of this can be extremely stressful.
Even for those young and middle aged adults who are just going about their daily routine–unaware of the big picture– the pressure to consume and produce, consume and produce, consume and produce, can (speaking from experience) be exhausting and even depressing.
In fact, according to the The New York Times, one in five adults in the U.S. is currently taking some sort of anti-psychotic medication. –The story makes no connection between the generation gap, or our public institutions–but in my opinion there is a connection… How could there not be? How could there not be a connection between the state of the world (our institutions and our relationships) and our states of mind? After all, the mind both creates and perceives (the state of) the world.
But the fact of the matter is, EVERYONE in society has something to contribute, and it’s not necessary to place so much pressure on young and middle age adults… Not only are they expected to keep the economy going strong, but in many instances they are also expected to be the sole supporters (both emotionally and financially) for our youth and, often times, for their aging parents.
If our institutions were more inclusive and supportive of intergenerational relationships, and our economy (which influences the structure of our institutions) was not so exploitative, responsibilities could be more easily and evenly distributed across generations. –Our young and middle aged adults would feel less pressure, and our youth and elderly citizens would have a greater sense of personal power and purpose.
So how does the generation gap affect senior citizens?
As I mentioned earlier, many of our elderly live out their last years either in retirement communities or nursing homes–separated from the rest of society. In fact, according to an article I read in Boundless Magazine, senior citizens are more prone to social isolation than any other segment of society; making them highly susceptible to dementia and depression.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 to 5 percent of senior adults living in the general community suffer from severe depression. While an estimated 11 percent of hospitalized seniors experience depression.
If isolation and a lack of socializing can lead to dementia and depression, then it stands to reason that being social and building relationships (particularly intergenerational) could have the opposite effect.
In fact, studies have shown that elderly adults that regularly interact with children perform better on memory test than their peers. And those with dementia or other cognitive impairments experience more positive effects from interaction with children than they do from non-intergenerational interactions. Click here to read a report by Generations United, which lists further health benefits of intergenerational relationships.
Having considered the importance of intergenerational relationships, and noted some of the downsides to generation gaps, I want to throw around some ideas on how to bring different generations together.
So how do we bridge the gap? –Here’s a list of a few of my ideas:
*Create and/or join a community garden. –Ideally it will be highly visible and centrally located, and if possible, located along a public transit route. This will make it easily accessible to every generation (consider the fact that children and many elders do not drive).
*Facilitate community art projects.
*Approach your local senior centers and daycare centers about the possibility of overlapping services.
*Bring teens and elders together in a project to record oral histories. –House them at the public library.
*Encourage businesses in your community to provide daycare services (at the workplace) for their employees.
*Create a volunteer program specifically aimed at bringing teens and preteens into contact with elderly citizens. For example: Have youth visit nursing homes. –They could do things like play bingo, tell stories, and bring gifts and sing christmas carols during the holidays.
*Use your community garden as a gathering spot for monthly potlucks
The list could go on and on, –What are some of your ideas?
With a little imagination and creativity, and a lot of determination and heart, we can bridge our generation gaps. In doing so, we will ensure that our children get the attention and skills they need to become healthy, happy, productive citizens. Our young and middle aged adults will feel less burdened and stressed, and our elderly will once again have a sense of purpose. Together, we can preserve the wisdom of the past while working to create a vibrant, culturally rich future. Let’s make it happen!