Mind the Gap

The train slows, a recording voices the familiar “mind the gap” warning, and the doors open. A horde steps mindlessly over the threshold and continues on its way without missing a beat.

If only the generation gap were so easy to cross.

Could it be though? Is it really inevitable that there should be a wide chasm between older generations and younger ones? Is the generation gap simply a function of progress—because older people are not interested in new trends and younger ones are—or has it been actively cultivated by a society that believes age divisions are inevitable, if not preferable? Could developing good relationships between generations actually be easier and more beneficial than we assume?

These are among the questions being asked by sociologists as they study what they call “institutional age segregation,” by which they mean the socially constructed isolation of different groups according to their chronological age. In fact, sociologists have observed that institutions divide the human life timeline roughly into thirds: childhood, or the education phase; midlife, which involves work and family-building activities; and finally, retirement.

Usually, when any of these age groups is engaged in their primary activity its individual members are physically isolated from people of other generations. There is little (if any) interaction across age barriers except at the nuclear family level during relatively brief down times. Even during leisure time, institutions continue to encourage segregation by age. Communities have “senior centers” or “youth centers.” Church activities are also often structured within these narrow generational distinctions. But after all, is there really any harm in this?

According to sociologists Gunhild O. Hagestad and Peter Uhlenberg, there is very good reason to be disturbed by such segregation. In a 2006 exploration of the subject published in the international journal Research on Aging, they write “In our view, it blocks essential opportunities for individuals to meet, interact, and move beyond ‘us versus them’ distinctions. This has several consequences worthy of attention. First, it produces and reproduces ageism. Second, it is a threat to embeddedness, and it increases the risk for isolation in later life. Third, it thwarts socialization for young and old. Fourth, it impedes generativity, especially the creation and maintenance of a generative society.”

Any one of these factors is cause for concern, but two of them in particular carry potentially serious long-term consequences. The first of these involves the concept of embeddedness. When individuals have strong relationship networks within society at large, they are considered to be embedded in the social fabric. They receive adequate social support and can offer support to others. But if networks exist only among age-peers, this support system eventually begins to break down. As people age, those who outlive their close friends are likely to suffer severe isolation as their support system disintegrates. Worse, when these support networks are only connected horizontally, society as a whole is weaker and people of all ages are more likely to feel isolated than if networks extended both horizontally and vertically.

The second factor, generativity, refers to building continuity from one generation to another through activities such as mentoring and teaching to ensure a positive legacy. Generativity happens on an individual level as well as a societal level, of course. Parents hope to pass something of themselves on to their children, but they are also motivated to improve society in general so their children will have a better future. Unfortunately, researchers find that older people without vertical ties to younger generations are less likely to be concerned about contributing positively to society than those who have children or grandchildren.

Whether they have ever been parents or not, elders naturally have a great deal to contribute to the younger generation. But young people also have benefits to bestow on their elders. Their enthusiasm for new experiences and new technologies is contagious, and their youthful outlook can actually be a boon to their elders’ physical health. However, if young and old rarely occupy the same space at the same time, a mutual exchange of benefits is unlikely ever to take place. As Hagestad and Uhlenberg point out, in modern urban society different generations each live in separate islands of activity. “Much of adult life takes place on islands that are unknown to children, and adults are away from their residential islands so much that they are not integrated in the surrounding communities. . . . While children and youth occupy spaces devoted to education, adults are ‘away’ much of the day in work spaces, where there are no children and no old people.”

This state of affairs encourages the formation of diverging age cultures, and according to Hagestad and Uhlenberg, marketing entities are eager to exploit and fortify these differences. As a result, the more each generation is convinced of their differences, the less time they spend together, and the fewer opportunities they have to influence one another.

It’s a cycle that would appear very difficult to break. However, some researchers are working on ways to break it.

One way is through what sociologists call intergenerational interventions, or intergenerational programs. These are essentially organized activities that bring two or more generations together to become better acquainted through helping one another: for instance, older members of the community may enroll in programs to help tutor teens, or read to preschoolers. Some interventions may take the form of multigenerational music groups that may perform in community venues. Still other programs bring the two “bookend” generations together in intergenerational daycare centers. In fact, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology focused on just such a center located in the northeastern United States.

The center’s objective was to meet the care needs of preschool age children and elders in a single facility while providing a variety of opportunities for the two groups to interact daily. To evaluate the success of such programs, researchers interviewed the elderly participants specifically to find out how they perceived the interaction affected their emotional well-being. They found the elders to be overwhelmingly positive about the interaction they had with the children in the group and most of the respondents, no matter how much or how little they involved themselves with the children, reported a sense of calm and familial connection from the program. Many pointed to the youth and enthusiasm of the children as key elements of the emotional well-being they felt from their involvement. One participant was especially uplifted emotionally by a letter he received from a parent of one of the children he had worked with in the center. The single mother indicated that his positive involvement with her child had inspired her to pursue an education and start a business. The elder was gratified that his involvement had positively affected the lives of two generations at once.

Successful projects like this one raise hopes that society could one day tear down the intergenerational walls that have been erected in recent decades. But other studies hint that efforts will need to be determined and consistent. One 2007 study published in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships makes this interesting assessment: “While being a role model was embraced by many of the older adults [in the study], a few were unable to see themselves in this position. In our nation’s relatively recent past, our elder population was encouraged by media and other sources to view the retirement years as a time for self-indulgence and total relaxation. With that came the unintended message that elders were an expendable part of a productive society. Now that the population is aging and demographics are changing, the need for older adults in the social fabric of society is crucial. . . . Yet, substituting one message for another is difficult and takes time.”

Undoubtedly it is time worth taking. But substituting one message for another may actually be the easiest hurdle. The more difficult task is likely to be that of substituting one course of action for another. This would seem to require a nearly complete overhaul of the social institutions that encourage us to congregate in peer groups and which perpetuate a generation gap. Unfortunately, such widespread change seems an unlikely scenario. Especially considering that most people in today’s busy world don’t really seem to mind the gap so very much.