The Intergenerational Imperative: Why We’ve Never Needed Each Other More
Written for and published in ICAA Journal by Lori K. Bitter, MS
Intergenerational. It’s the hot new buzzword in aging though it’s been around for years. It’s also steaming hot at a time when ageism is rampant and headlines report workplace warfare between Boomers and Millennials. To be sure, the unrest is real. Boomers lost jobs during the Great Recession and have struggled to earn again at the same rate. Millennials stayed in their parents’ homes, not earning enough to launch into an independent adult life. Throw family caregiving for loved ones into the mix and a clear pattern of interdependency begins to be clear.
SEISMIC SHIFTS How did we get here? The current picture starts with increases in longevity. Since 1900 we’ve added 30 additional years of life. The United States Census Bureau estimates that the number of Americans living into their 90s will quadruple between 2010 and 2050,4 while the United Nations projects a 351% increase in the global population of adults 85+ over that same period. Unfortunately, the expectations of roles and life stages are rooted in the 1960s. Contrary to common thought, those 30 additional years aren’t simply tacked onto the end of life. Rather, they are distributed throughout the adult life stages, creating seismic shifts that our culture has yet to catch up with.
“By ‘understanding the real root of what is happening across the generational spectrum,’ we can create approaches that recognize interdependencies plus value and benefit all generations”
Young adulthood, midlife and old age are all being transformed by the addition of these years. Yet the changes continue to be written off as generational stereotypes. Understanding the real root of what is happening across the generational spectrum allows us to recognize it and work with it for the benefit of all generations
We are culturally stuck in the life stage paradigm of the last century. We followed a fairly consistent and predictable life script: 1. Go to School 2. Find a Job 3. Get Married 4. Have Children 5. Work Hard 6. Retire.
A few lucky people had some years of leisure before they died. This model has gone the way of the rotary phone, but the universal mindset has not made the change. Or, as author and gerontologist Barbara Waxman says in The Middlescence Manifesto, “We have a cultural lag. People have a lot of needless dissonance between perception and the reality of how our lives are unfolding.”
Markers of change Life is messier. The predictable script is gone. Yet there is a discomfort with the idea of not living up to the old ideal. Consider some of these markers of change:
Young adults Taking longer to enter and finish education Waiting longer to marry Waiting longer to have children
“Middlescents” Changing career direction Retraining/educating Starting businesses Taking sabbaticals
Older adults Working to age 70 and beyond Remarrying Continuing education
Adulthood at every stage has seen shifts. Rather than using ageist stereotypes to put one generation down to elevate another, or feeling uncomfortable for not fitting an old-school life map, we can embrace this opportunity to create an intergenerational approach that recognizes our inherent interdependencies and values every generation for their contributions.
CHANGING PARADIGMS Let’s examine some areas in which the shifting maps of adulthood contribute to significant intergenerational issues.
Housing Housing is one of the industries most impacted by these life stage changes. In the US, more than 50% of Boomers have less than USD$100k saved for retirement, though many view their homes as a significant retirement asset. Most will need to sell the large family home and convert that equity to retirement income. But the demand for these homes may be very small. (This will force many Boomers to look to financial tools such as reverse mortgages.)
Millennials are not purchasing their own homes at the same rates of previous generations. They report the size of their student loans as the major issue in not being able to save for a down payment or qualify for a mortgage. With student-loan debt topping USD$1.4 trillion (and growing), research by Citizens Bank found that 60% of college graduates ages 35 and younger expect to be paying these loans into their 40s. Concern also transcends generational divides. Research conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that 2.8 million borrowers are 60 years or older, parents and grandparents of Millennial students.
The rental market The dream of home ownership isn’t just an issue for younger generations. In 2016, home ownership in the US reached an historic low. While Millennials are part of the issue, surging Boomer interest in renting can’t be discounted.
A 2015 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that families and married couples ages 45–64 accounted for roughly twice the share of renter growth as households under age 35. In urban areas with highly competitive rental markets, it is younger renters who are losing to older renters with greater ability to pay, creating increased need for affordable rental housing.
To manage the cost of living in their homes or high rents, Boomers increasingly choose to live with a roommate. Just like Millennials, Boomers also live with roommates for social reasons. Companies, like Silvernest.com, are emerging to help older adults find roommates and provide a range of services to ensure the success of the match. Some of these matches end up being from multiple generations.
Multigenerational living Alternatively, there is a growing trend of Boomers remaining in the larger family home and housing multiple generations under the same roof. In 2014, a record 60.6 million people, or 19% of the US population, lived with multiple generations under one roof, according to Pew Research Center. For the first time, young adults have replaced elders as the second adult generation in the household.
Three-generation households—grandparents, parents and grandchildren—include more than 27 million people, while about a million people live in households with more than three generations. Another 3.2 million Americans live in grandparent/grandchild homes. Developers have begun to recognize the needs of these households and have created models to accommodate multiple generations. Companies have evolved to create accessory dwellings—nicknamed “granny garages”—to place on properties with existing homes to house family members. And nonprofits, like Fairhill Partners in Cleveland, Ohio, have developed apartments for grandparents raising grandchildren.
The rise in multigenerational living is one reason why fewer Americans live alone now than they did in 1990.
Caregiving Increased longevity means more generations are now involved in providing care to older loved ones. In the US, the average age of family caregivers is trending younger at 49 years old. Caregiving has also become much more of a family affair. Generation X and the Millennial Generation are stepping into caregiving roles—47% of caregivers are 18–49 years of age. Part of this shift is due to their availability to provide care due to unemployment or underemployment.
The National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP report that 20% of caregivers are over age 65. There are also 1.4 million (and this estimate is low) children ages 8–18 who take care of a parent, grandparent or other elder, according to the American Association of Caregiving Youth. These hidden caregivers miss school, have little normal social life, and no support network as they navigate caring for the adults in their lives.
A looming crisis? Cultural shifts have also led to changes in family structures and stability. Divorced and remarried at “unprecedented levels” in their younger years, Boomers have largely been responsible for the doubling of divorce rates in the 50-and-older age group since 1990. Their families are also typically smaller (fewer than two children). So what will caregiver support look like in the future?
In 2010, the ratio of available caregivers to people requiring care was 7:1. This number will continue to fall, to 4:1, as America’s Boomers push over the 80-year-old threshold in 2030. Between 2030 and 2040, the 80+ population will increase 44% while the number of caregivers increases by only 10%. The ratio completely bottoms out to less than 3:1 in 2040, when the Boomers are in old, old age. (In fact, caregiver support ratios will tumble in many countries worldwide.) Additionally, the higher percentage of unmarried Boomers and Boomers without children will require new kinds of support systems not dependent on family caregivers.
Technology is emerging to address some aspects of care. There is still a growing gap, however, in the number of jobs that will be created as a result of aging, and the number of people available to fill those roles.
Aging workforce Who will work in aging? At some point in the 1980s, vocational education began to disappear from high schools, and the expectation grew that the majority of graduates would go to college. The tide is turning. But it’s not turning fast enough to create the healthcare and technology workforce required for the aging Boomers.
Emerging models aim to address the need for this workforce, with a focus on bridging the generational divide. Connect The Ages is a social enterprise on a mission to connect 5 million students to careers in aging by 2025. The time is certainly right to bridge the potential of Millennials and Generation Z to the aging population.
“Most students aren’t aware jobs in aging even exist, let alone future-proof, interdisciplinary jobs with room for advancement,” says 28-year-old Connect The Ages Founder and AARP Innovation Fellow Amanda Cavaleri. “We want to help educators introduce careers in aging to students by first bridging generational divides. Through our grassroots campaigns, students experience the often unknown positive side of aging and have opportunities to explore this impactful, purposeful work.”
Connect The Ages has released interviews with dozens of Millennials in aging, including architects, entrepreneurs, healthcare workers, lawyers, policymakers and technologists. Complementing the interviews is a national grassroots outreach and intergenerational storytelling and mentorship campaign. Many of the Millennials who work in aging report finding the field entirely by chance. This is not a sustainable way to meet the industry’s needs. Connect the Ages wants to create an active strategy to engage more young people in the field.
THE IMPERATIVE We are just scratching the surface of understanding the interconnectedness of the generations and the need to work together toward solving the issues ahead of us. The imperative for our organizations, and our industry, is to discover, support and create initiatives that work toward a better-connected intergenerational future that will advance the aging field with young people and benefit everyone. We’ve never needed each other more.
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