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Do Different Generations Really Want to Collaborate to Improve the World?

A nationally representative survey suggests, emphatically, yes. But there are obstacles.

By Stefanie Weiss

"A lot of young people come off as antagonistic toward adults," acknowledged Thanasi Dilos, co-founder of a startup called Civics Unplugged. "But they're not representative of most of the young people who are doing the work."

Dilos, who is 19, works closely with David Cooperstein, a 56-year-old marketing expert, to spread the word about how the group supports young leaders with innovative ideas for solving community problems. "The adults that work with us provide credibility and keep us grounded," Dilos said. "The last thing we need is generations apart."

New research shows that Dilos is on to something.

Credit: Getty

A nationally representative survey — commissioned by the organization I work for, CoGenerate (formerly Encore.org), and conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago earlier this year — found deep interest from all ages, but particularly young people, in bringing generations together to solve problems and bridge divides.

The survey of 1,549 Americans, aged 18 to 92, also revealed which adults are most eager to start, the surprising issues each generation selects as top priorities for working together, and the barriers the generations must overcome to act on their interest. 

Focus on Findings

First, the big picture. More than 90% of the survey respondents said that working across generations — referred to as "cogeneration" — can help America better solve social problems and reduce cultural divisions. Four-fifths said they were interested in working with people 25 years older or younger than themselves to improve the world.

"We're facing a crisis of belonging and purpose across all generations."

At Civics Unplugged, Dilos and Cooperstein said they find common cause in elevating a new generation of civic leaders who understand that it takes a variety of skills, talents and perspectives to solve today's seemingly intractable problems.

"We're facing a crisis of belonging and purpose across all generations," Dilos said. "People are lonelier, everything's on fire. So what do you do?" His answer: forget generational divides, join in community with one another and share wisdom. "It's right there in front of us."

Survey results show that Gen Z respondents (aged 18-25) were much more motivated (29%) by the opportunity to work across generations than Boomers (18%) and Silent Generation respondents (16%). So were Black and Hispanic respondents of all ages, who were almost twice as likely as white and Asian respondents to step up when opportunities to make life better are intergenerational.

Motivation by Generation

About 40% of survey respondents said they had already worked across generations to improve the world around them, and three-quarters said the experience was positive.

What, exactly, did they like about it? Here's the benefit most commonly cited by each generation:

  • Gen Z (18 to 25 years old): Taught me something I wouldn't have learned had I not worked with someone older.
  • Millennials (26 to 41): Showed me that younger and older generations can produce better solutions together.
  • Gen X (42 to 57): Taught me something I would not have learned had I not worked with someone older.
  • Boomers (58 to 76): Allowed me to share what I know with someone younger.
  • Silent Generation (77 and older): Increased appreciation for younger generations.

Looking forward, a significant percentage of respondents from every generation said the desire to share knowledge and learn were among the top reasons they want to work for change with older and younger people.

Priority Issues Differ

While older and younger people said they wanted to work together to address some of the same issues, there were striking differences by age and race.

The three youngest generations — Gen Z, Millennial and Gen X — all put mental health atop the list of issues they would prefer to work on with older people. Boomer and Silent Generation respondents did not include mental health among their top five priorities for cogeneration.

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Cal Halvorsen, 39, an assistant professor at the Boston College School of Social Work and a research advisor to CoGenerate, isn't surprised at the finding. "Since the start of the pandemic, I've noticed how more and more of my own students — most are Millennials and Gen Z — are struggling with their own mental health," he said. "I also wonder whether younger generations are just more comfortable speaking about mental health than older generations have been."

The oldest generations — Silent Generation and Boomers — ranked the environment as their top choice for cogenerational action.

Only one issue rose to the top five for all generations: education.

There were significant differences by race as well. More than 62% of Black respondents cited racial justice as an urgent priority, which was more than twice the percentage of white respondents. More than half of Asian respondents cited health care and caregiving as a top concern, compared with only about one-third of white respondents. And more than half of Black respondents cited housing and homelessness as a pressing issue, compared with fewer than one-quarter of Asian respondents.

"My experience mixed with theirs creates a better end result."

Barriers Abound

Despite their strong interest in cooperating across generations, fully half of respondents cited a range of obstacles preventing them from doing it. People in each generation said they "can't find opportunities" and 72% said they wished they had more chances to work across generations for change.

Gen Z respondents were most likely to say they didn't know how to initiate working with people of different generations, and that they found it difficult to communicate with older generations.

Dilos and Cooperstein said they find managing their 37-year age difference well worth the occasional misunderstandings. It has enabled them to pocket more than a few life lessons, like "use email, not texts."

More importantly, Dilos said "David has really taught me how to keep my ideas and the way I look at the world strong — to be unwavering but to be able to take into account how others view the world so I can better approach them."

Cooperstein stresses the bottom line. "My experience mixed with theirs creates a better end result," he said.

About the Research

NORC at the University of Chicago AmeriSpeak Panel reached 1,549 people aged 18 to 92 via web and telephone in March 2022. The full report is available from CoGenerate.

Stefanie Weiss is the communications director at CoGenerate (formerly Encore.org). Read More
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