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Essay

The Perils of Age Segregation

  • April 17th 2019

Marc Freedman is the president and CEO of Encore.org and author of "How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations."

He spoke in the program track From Lifespan to Healthspan at Aspen Ideas: Heath.

Sandy Kominksy is having a rough day. The acting coach, played by Michael Douglas, on the award-winning Netflix show, The Kominsky Method, has just found out he’s got prostate cancer. On the upside, it’s the “slow-moving” kind that won’t likely kill him.

“Show me a guy who has slow-moving cancer,” he mutters to himself, “and I’ll show you a guy who has cancer.”

Kominsky sits on a park bench next to a playground and answers his phone. Watching the children play and listening to their chatter, his mood lightens. A kind of joy begins to settle in. Then he notices two moms staring at him and whispering to one another. They hurry their children off the swings -- and call the cops.

“This woman on the playground, she thinks I’m a pedophile,” he says to his daughter on the phone. “Hey,” he shouts to the moms while getting up to leave, “I’m not a pervert. I’m an actor!”

I laugh, but I can’t help but wonder how we got here. How is it exactly that we went from one of the most age-integrated societies in the world at the beginning of the last century to one where an older person taking interest and joy in the next generation is a matter for the police?

As I write in my new book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, our odyssey into age segregation began for mostly understandable, even at times progressive reasons. In the latter part of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th, childhood began to be recognized as a distinct life stage, a viewpoint reinforced by innovations like universal schooling and the creation of pediatrics as a specialty, along with the establishment of institutions like orphanages, high schools, even the Boy Scouts.

Then came other legal strictures around the age one could enter the military, be employed, consume certain beverages, and get married. Marketers entered the fray as well, ultimately creating categories like “toddlers” and later “teens” and later yet, “tweens.”

An industrial mindset -- moving from standardizing the means of production to standardizing every other aspect of life -- transformed institutions into age-graded experiences, all in the name of efficiency.

Educators separated young people more and more finely until older youth and younger ones rarely interacted during the school day. And later-life went from being considered a natural part of the life cycle -- at one time a divinely blessed one -- to being deemed a medical condition, an incurable malady to be diagnosed, treated, and managed. In the process, older people themselves were transformed from admired icons to infirm and presumed incompetent individuals, unable to keep up with the quickening pace of assembly-line America.

Institutions like nursing homes sprang up to warehouse these human artifacts on the periphery of society. Later they would be joined by other more affirmative but similarly age-segregating creations, such as senior centers. Even the enactment of Social Security in the 1930s had an impact, hardening the beginning of old age at 65 -- and accelerating the exodus of older people from the workplace.

A few decades later, real estate developers, eager to entice people to age-exclusive retirement communities, married age segregation with the ideal of a second youth. They succeeded -- by the millions. And now, says Cornell professor Karl Pillemer, “we’re in the midst of a dangerous experiment. This is the most age-segregated society that’s ever been.”

The results of this grievous, self-inflicted wound haven’t been pretty. Without proximity, friendships haven’t easily formed across the generations and ageism has deepened. Public budgets have increasingly become a battleground between clashing generational interests. And loneliness -- described as the single most significant public health issue of our time by former surgeon general Vivek Murthy -- has become rampant, effecting older and younger people most of all.

As we enter new demographic territory -- this year, for the first time, there are more people over 60 in the US than under 18 -- we face a stark choice between two paths forward. One is characterized by scarcity, conflict, and loneliness; the other by abundance, interdependence, and connection.

It won’t be easy to choose the right path. We’ll need to be as creative at inventing institutions that bring Americans together as we have been over the past century in crafting ones that split us apart. But the rewards will be clear.

Bringing the generations together can alleviate so many problems, while offering a way to reweave the social fabric of today’s multi-generational and multicultural society and tomorrow’s. And it promises to bring joy. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who led the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, found that those in middle age or older who invest in nurturing the next generation are three times as likely to be happy as those who fail to do so.

So take a seat on a nearby park bench and watch the kids play. Better yet, join the game. We can fix these divisions. And, in the end, doing so can fix us, too.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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