Interaction across the generational spectrum was historically a given in human society. In early societies, these interactions were how young people learned everything, from how to make a fire to how to find food. However, much of modern society is structured in a way that isolates generations, resulting in increasingly rare meaningful intergenerational interaction. With young people spending nearly all of their time in school or in extracurriculars with others their age and with careers becoming increasingly ageist, platforms that encourage mingling of generations are fading.
Since the mid 1960s, gerontologists, psychologists, educators and specialists in human development have been reporting an increase in the number of elderly persons in our population, a growth in the number of age segregated communities, and a decrease in consistent and frequent interactions among younger and older members of our families. The outcomes of these related social phenomenon have effected the lives of our elderly and our children.
For our elderly, there has been (an observed) decline in self-esteem, self-worth, and an increase in feelings of loneliness. For our children and youth, there has been an observed loss of the traditional elder-child nurturing, a loss of cultural and historical connections, and an increase in their fear of aging. Age segregation, furthermore, seems to have resulted in an increase in myths and stereotypes between the young and the old.Sally Newman PhD (1989) A History of Intergenerational Programs, Journal of Children in Contemporary Society, 20:3-4, 1-16, DOI: 10.1300/J274v20n03_01.
Intergenerational collaboration and climate change
Collaboration across the age spectrum is important for several reasons. First, as Alison Gopnik insightfully explains, young brains are particularly well-suited for exploration and innovation while older brains tend towards efficient action. Adequately addressing the climate crisis requires both. We must creatively explore innovative solutions, from technologies to ways of being in community with other living beings – human and otherwise. At the same time, we must appreciate the structures currently in place, acknowledging possible economic, structural and societal challenges. Whether those challenges are actual or perceived, they must be addressed if the support needed for the necessary innovative changes is to be garnered.
Second, a historical perspective would deepen our understanding of the crisis and provide tools for critically evaluating the parameters of modern society. The human world has changed so quickly in the last hundred years. A meaningful historical perspective, often best developed through intergenerational interaction, can help us appreciate this capacity for change, understand how lasting change happens and uncover possible ways of being from the past that might serve us well in the present.
It isn’t enough, however to throw generations together and let the process unfurl. Because the world has changed so quickly and because young and old brains are structured differently, interactions between generations rely on openness and respect if true collaboration is to unfold. Stereotypes and assumptions abound about the different generations – both warranted and unfounded. These preconceived understandings of what people of different ages are like must be addressed if meaningful collaboration is to occur.
To be sure, a common goal is a powerful motivator. And working on climate change is a particularly powerful common goal. However, it is still essential to lay a groundwork of respect, open communication, listening and – perhaps most importantly – directly acknowledging and celebrating the different strengths held by each generation. In fact, when working on an emotionally charged topic like climate change where a sense of haste is natural, it is perhaps even more important to mindfully take the time to establish the means for positive communication and collaboration. If this groundwork of respect can occur, then the exact differences that can lead one generation to feel misunderstood and even dismissed by another can instead be held up, celebrated, and employed to make collaboration meaningful and impactful.