The United States is in the midst of a profound change in demography and longevity that has been predicted for decades. In 2018, new census population projections highlighted what some commentators call “the grey-brown divide” — our white population is growing older as our younger population becomes increasingly diverse. And 2019 marks a striking milestone: For the first time in our nation’s history, there are more people in the United States over 60 than under 18. What do these changes mean for us as a society? How might donors choose to respond?
The aging of America often raises considerable consternation. We hear it in conversations about cross-generational tension in the workplace, the future of Social Security, attitudes toward immigration, responses to climate change, and more. It’s no surprise that ageism is on the rise as well.
At the same time, loneliness has reached epidemic proportions. According to former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, loneliness is the public health epidemic in America today, equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The loneliest populations? You guessed it — young people and older ones.
Still, just 1 to 2 percent of institutional philanthropy is dedicated to aging — and that figure hasn’t changed much in 20 years, says John Feather of the American Society on Aging. A tiny fraction of that tiny percentage spurs intergenerational activity. What’s more, funders interested in children and youth rarely look to the growing population of healthy people in their 50s, 60s and beyond as a resource. All of this adds up to far too little of the innovation necessary to make a society with more older people than younger ones work for all ages.
At Encore.org, we see new solutions everywhere — and we’re eager for more.
- At FIRST 5 Family Resource Centers in San Jose, California, nearly 300 older volunteers — many of them grandmothers of the children at the centers — now help support 2,700 children age 5 and under, expanding the centers’ capacity and improving quality.
- Silvernest, a homesharing platform, now partners with Encore.org and AmeriCorps programs — like Teach For America and City Year — to match older homeowners with extra room with young people who are serving their community for a year and need affordable rent.
- The Girl Scouts of the USA hired Francesca Villaro, a retired corporate executive, as an Encore Fellow — an experienced professional who works in a high-impact, temporary assignment at a nonprofit — to manage change processes designed to bring efficiency and new opportunities to girls worldwide. The arrangement worked out so well the Girls Scouts hired Villaro as its full-time senior director of process improvement and change management. Now she’s hiring Encore Fellows of her own.
In addition to supporting these kinds of innovations, Encore.org is working with several foundation leaders to explore a first-of-its-kind funder collaborative to dramatically expand investments in intergenerational work. A new collaborative effort could help meet a pressing need for investments not just in aging or in youth but in cross-generational efforts that create a world in which all ages can thrive.
You can make a difference in your own community by:
- Giving to organizations that bring two or more generations together — for learning, service, recreation, worship, shared meals. Proximity is powerful for fighting age segregation, boosting cross-generational understanding, and creating connections.
- Starting a conversation among your family and friends about multiple generations joining together to give time or money to a cause you care about.
- Asking your community foundation or local giving circle whether they support (or would support) intergenerational approaches. Not yet? Encourage a change.
For a deeper dive:
- Read this FAQ by Boston College professor Cal Halvorsen: What does it mean to have a society with more older people than younger ones?
- Explore The Eisner Foundation’s resource center, curated by the only U.S. funder exclusively focused on intergenerational solutions.
- Learn more about strategic issues critical to intergenerational connections, such as grandfamilies and shared spaces, from Generations United.
- Consider the ideas in this discussion guide from Marc Freedman’s How to Live Forever.
- Find out more about how Encore Fellowships can add capacity to the nonprofit sector.
- Check out Encore.org’s Gen2Gen learning hub.
Michelle Hynes is a senior director at Encore.org, an ideas and innovation hub working at the intersection of aging, longevity, intergenerational connection and social justice. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about any of the ideas in this post.
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