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The Future of Aging Is Intergenerational

Ignore the palaver about generational conflict: we are not facing a zero-sum economic future

By Chris Farrell

I was onstage recently at a theater in Minneapolis with the improvisational comedy team The Theater of Public Policy, or T2P2. Co-founders Tane Danger and Brandon Boat conceived the idea of bringing on stage someone to talk about a serious topic — the economy in my case — and take questions from the host and audience.

Older and younger workers working together. Next Avenue, intergenerational workers
Research shows that multigenerational teams are the most productive because the generations learn from each other on the job  |  Credit: Getty

The guest segments at these events are serious, but the discussion is interrupted by two long improv sequences in which the actors unleash their imaginations and spin fanciful tales based on the conversation. One question from the audience involved the economics of generational conflict: Isn't the older generation hoarding wealth and absorbing too much government spending, leaving little behind for younger generations? (The improvisors loved playing off that question.)

The stoking of generational resentment is practically a cottage industry.

I get variations of the generational conflict assumption all the time. The stoking of generational resentment is practically a cottage industry. Business consultants and ideologically driven think tanks seem enamored with the theme that generational warfare lurks everywhere from the policy arena to the workplace.

Yet the idea that the relationship between older and younger generations is a zero-sum economic game is wrong — very wrong. The far more powerful story is one of generational interdependence and the advantages that come from nurturing common bonds and mutual opportunities.

The Real Problem: Income Inequality

For one thing, what is often labeled intergenerational conflict has nothing to do with age and everything to do with increasing inequality, considering the massive upward redistribution in wealth and income over the last several decades.

For another, the younger generations and their future selves have a huge stake in the current fight by older generations to crush ageism and to build age-friendly institutions. Think about it: Considering gains in life expectancy, odds are someone who graduated from college this spring will work for 50 to 70 years.

"Younger people are the ones who have the most at stake," says Robert Kramer, founder of Nexus Insights, a think tank in Annapolis, Maryland, focused on advancing the well-being of older adults by reimaging the possibilities unleashed by increased longevity. "A lot of change won't happen in my immediate lifetime. I'm 72."

The theme of generational interdependence ran throughout the discussions at the Revolutionize conference in Boston in late April. The conference, organized by the Age-Friendly Institute in Waltham, Massachusetts, along with Aging 2.0, brought together experts from various parts of the aging ecosystem to learn from one another's efforts to create more age-friendly communities, work environments, homes, health care and other critical infrastructure.

Participants were asked at the last session to describe the main point, or takeaway, they would take home with them. Almost everyone emphasized how reimaging society's major institutions to realize the promise of increased longevity was an intergenerational task.

This isn't about older adults," summarized Anne Doyle, President of Lasell Village, an educational retirement community housed at Lasell University, a private university in the Auburndale section of Newton, Massachusetts. "It's about everybody."

Let's bury the "kids versus canes" false rhetoric, now and forever.

Intergenerational Conflict Is a Myth

The benefits of highlighting the connections between generations are easy to multiply once you start looking. Take the experience of work, one of society's most important institutions. The notion that there is systematic intergenerational conflict at the workplace doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

For example, in a meta-analysis of three work-related outcomes — organizational commitment, turnover intention and job satisfaction — published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, scholars found little substantive differences among workers from different cohorts.

Survey research by the IBM Institute for Business Value suggests that Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers shared common work goals, including making a positive impact on the organization, dealing with a diverse group of people and working in teams.

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Research also shows that multigenerational teams are the most productive because the generations learn from each other on the job. That's the main message of a detailed international study published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2020, "Promoting an Age-Inclusive Workforce: Living, Learning and Earning Longer." (The report is based on data from six countries over 15 years, from 2002 to 2017.)

Here is the key conclusion from the report:

"The benefit of age diversity is that it enables workers of different ages to collaborate, share knowledge and support each other in complementary ways. Age diversity has the potential to make a firm's productivity greater than what the sum of its workers' individual productivities would suggest. Such complementarities tend to be particularly strong between young and older workers."

The housing market offers another example of the generations combining resources to improve well-being. The number of people living in multigenerational family households quadrupled to nearly 60 million from 1971 to 2021, calculates Pew Research Center. The share more than doubled to 18% of the U.S. population.

The Benefits of Multigenerational Households

Multigenerational living is not only a sensible way to share the cost of housing, it's also a convenient arrangement for childcare and elder care. No surprise Pew's scholars found that multigenerational households are less likely to be poor than those living in other types of households.

"The stakes couldn't be higher as we choose between two paths forward."

There is still a long way to go. The kind of major transformations required to create age-friendly institutions for multiple generations isn't easy. The design, rules and legal framework for America's core social and economic institutions were developed when life expectancy and health expectancy was 20 to 30 years shorter, notes Ruth Finkelstein, executive director of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging at Hunter College, in an essay for the Milken Institute Center on the Future of Aging.

Initiatives that improve the livability of cities for older people, transform colleges into multigenerational learning institutions and add aging to diversity, equity and inclusion programs are good for younger generations, too. Sadly, the rate of change has been slow and incremental so far. It's no coincidence the conference tapped into the "Revolutionize" theme.

That said, reform begins with building off the foundation of strong mutual generational dependence, rather than focusing on conflict and zero-sum perspectives. "The stakes couldn't be higher as we choose between two paths forward, prompted by the new demographics and the arrival of our profoundly multigenerational future — one characterized by scarcity, conflict and loneliness; the other by abundance, interdependence and connection," writes Marc Freedman's in "How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations."

I've learned from improv actors that the key expression is "yes, and" versus the more common "yes, but." Most of us respond with "yes, but" statements in conversations at home and at work. Yet the "but" framing often shuts down ideas, closes off explorations, and deflates the conversation. The mantra "yes, and" encourages openness to new ideas and opportunities and fosters an atmosphere of collaboration and cooperation.

If the "yes, and" creative framework holds for relations among the generations — young and old alike — the prospect of a multigenerational age-friendly societal transformation could accelerate fast.

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author
 of the books Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life and Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. Read More
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