A plan to connect the generations

In the media, you often hear about the generational divide. From the Economist to Newsnight, every outlet seems to have a view. Most are informed by hard stats. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, young people between 22 and 30 were left on average 7% worse off as a result of the 2008 financial crash while the over-60s were 11% better off. On housing, the proportion of 25-year-olds in the UK owning their own home has almost halved over the past 20 years, according to the Local Government Association, while people over 55 have more wealth locked in homes than the entire annual GDP of Italy. This perceived inequity is often distilled to present a zero-sum chasm: it’s ‘Baby boomers’ versus ‘Millennials’.

DISCONNECTION

With real life so often reduced to seven basic plots — overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth — this narrative ticks many boxes for a media searching for a story. Statistics make headlines, and headlines sell news. But the way in which these insights are distilled and presented is also a choice. Last year, I was invited by a well-known media organisation to write about what the generations have in common. When my piece was published online, it was illustrated by a photo of a curmudgeonly older woman, looking meanly down the barrel of the lens from a position of isolation and iciness. The message was clear: our readers are young, and this is the enemy. I asked for the photo to be changed, and when the editor refused, I pulled the article and published it myself.

But it’s not just the media that reduce our interactions with others to a battle. Our wider culture, too, engenders opposing stereotypes about the generations that need challenging. Millennials are compulsive, entitled, techno-maniacs permanently glued to their phones. Older people are wise and resourceful but insular, unconnected, and a burden on public services. It’s easy to have those stereotypes underscored by an occasional negative interaction, or our own fear of ‘the other’. But the reality, as I’ve found over six years bringing younger and older people together, can be that these generations — with such different life experiences — in fact have so much in common and so much to gain from one another.

CONNECTION

89% of young people and 84% of older people say they rely on the internet — but both groups feel overwhelmed by the dominance of new technology. Almost eight in 10 people between 18 and 24 and the over-65s want life to slow down. A similar proportion want to mix with people of different age groups and backgrounds. Young and old all see good relationships, health, learning and independence as amongst their highest aspirations. Social care for older people remains the second highest concern for 18 to 34 year olds. And if I had a tenner for every time I’d heard older people feel sympathy — empathy — for how tough younger people have it these days, well, I’d almost be able to afford a deposit.

The difficulty, then, is not just in diverging attitudes — that is a symptom of our apparent disparity, rather than a cause. In fact, the challenge to overcome in the first instance is to enable people to interact with others from different backgrounds, ages and life experiences and to be exposed to the richness in difference — rather than to retreat to the comfort zones and filter bubbles of sharing time with people who are ‘like us’.

This is something we’ve achieved on a local level through the creation of North London Cares, South London Cares and Manchester Cares. In bringing older and younger neighbours together across social, generational and attitudinal divides to share time, laughter and new experiences through group activities and one-to-one friendships, we have seen some amazing results. 77% of older people involved regularly say their relations with young people have improved, rising to 84% for those whose relations were previously negative. Meanwhile, 97% of the younger people participating feel more able to appreciate older people. A majority of both groups feel a closer connection to their community as a result of being part of The Cares Family.

CIVIL SOCIETY

We need more of this type of interaction across our regions. Civil society can lead the way by being innovative and responsive to the changing demands — and language — of the world around them. This means moving beyond the traditional ‘service’ model defined by the provision of ‘help’ given by staff or volunteers to ‘clients’ — in favour of a more mutual approach.

Good Gym is a wonderful organisation that enables young people to get fit while simultaneously building relationships with older neighbours who live alone. Their model is now in 38 communities around the UK, and growing. Meanwhile, organisations like Homeshare UK enable unrelated people — often from different generations — to share their homes for mutual benefit. And, as outlined by David Williams and Maia Beresford in the new All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration collection for which this essay was originally written, after the recent success of the Channel 4 documentary ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’, crèches and day centres for older people should be inspired to formally merge. The best civil society funders see themselves as early adopters of these types of mutual models — guiding and supporting them to achieve scale.

GOVERNMENT

But across wider society, and in particular through government, we have so many other levers that could bring the generations together in a new social compact — and save the state money in return. On planning, welfare, health, education, transport, taxation and democracy and across local and national government as a whole, it’s time for a radical new approach to how we bring people from different backgrounds and generations together to unleash a new era of solidarity and to show that we truly have more in common than that which divides us.

PLANNING

An obvious place to start is with planning. It’s universally acknowledged that Britain needs a massive investment in new affordable homes. But just as important as the numbers of new units built and their cost is how that stock is designed and put to use. In his essay ‘Building Intergenerational Relationships’, David Robinson argues that we need to ‘design in’ opportunities for social connection. We do: we need homes in the public as well as the private sector that enable communities to mix openly and freely. That means more amenable mixed use public spaces, with areas in new developments for younger and older people to interact. The proliferation of benches and recreational areas would be a start. And, when it comes to assisted living, people need the space to interact beyond their own worlds.

Brilliant, forward-thinking organisations like United St Saviour’s in south London are already building modern day alms houses with interaction in mind, with activities and spaces designed to appeal to external parties as well as residents and to encourage mixing. Organisations with huge purchasing power — from the Greater Manchester Housing Fund to London’s City Hall — could commit to this sort of approach, building shared office spaces, barber shops, coffee shops, libraries and other cultural venues into their schemes.
And as well as quotas for affordable housing in new builds, councils should also build requirements for mixed use space and mixed age tenancies into their development contracts. Alongside this, they should trial schemes to reserve a small proportion of housing for people who went to school in the area, so that those who are already part of communities can deepen their roots and feel better connected.

WELFARE

If government is willing to be bold, it could also take a radical new approach to welfare — through a Connecting State which unleashes the power of and participation in networks over the reliance on payments alone and which in turn could correct the imbalance of welfare expenditure on one generation over another.

This new approach would curtail the growth of universal benefits for certain age groups at the perceived expense of others and target investments where society tells us they are needed — dismantling the poverty of opportunity and inequality of connection for the long term. For those who can, locally devolved individual allowances could replace universal pensions and allow older people to more easily contribute by being brought into schools, colleges and corporations to inspire and mentor the next generation.

Simultaneously, the national pensionable age could be raised more quickly with incentives written into the system that reward participation in business and community over age alone. Benefits like the Winter Fuel Allowance would still be a mainstay for those who need them, but the money freed up by targeting resources more effectively could be put into new programmes to reduce youth unemployment. And ending the triple lock on pensions would free up money to build homes for younger and older people to share space so that people can look out for one another.

Meanwhile, tax breaks for companies hiring or retraining people over 70 — and putting to work those years of experience — would make a start in reducing age discrimination at work.

HEALTH

That same shift in public spending priorities for the long-term benefit of the country as a whole could also be applied to health. The National Health Service, if it is to thrive long into the future, should be realigned to do what it says on the tin: keep people healthy, as well as patching us up when we get sick. If we can shift some of the cost of healthcare from cure to prevention, through better physical and mental health enablement, we can even out expenditure on older and younger people and improve health for all. Now is the time to start, with the provision of accessible free exercise classes for all, universal free school meals and cradle-to-grave mental health support including through schools and businesses.

TRANSPORT

Just as with the metaphorical school gate, modes of transport can be places where people of different generations, backgrounds and life experiences already do mix. And yet, somehow, even as we ride the bus with the same people every day, we have cut ourselves off from others — through music consumed in solitude or the ubiquitous smart phone.

So we need to do more to make our transport more sociable. Big organisations like TFL and TfGM can make a start — for example through a “No headphones day” to encourage people to look up and speak to co-travellers, or book exchange cubby holes on buses and trains. That would make us all realise that the public realm is for everyone, and that we all have a responsibility to engage with it.

And if those ideas are just a little too un-British, how about replacing segregated “priority seats” with “community seats” which encourage younger and older people to sit together and chat? More simply still, we could replace advertising at bus stops with images of local younger and older people happily interacting, to help people of all generations to feel familiar and to relate to the people around them and their wider community.

Meanwhile, subsidised travel for young and old alike should be made fairer — with the average lengths of eligibility for young people’s and seniors’ travel cards linked.

TAXATION

With loneliness now shown to be a major public health crisis for young and old — with 17% of older people seeing friends or family just once a week and 11% just once a month, men under 40 now feeling more isolated than at any other time in their lives, one in five young mums feeling lonely ‘always’, and loneliness shown to be as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day — now is also time to address the dual crisis of disconnection in our connected age. To pay for more of those interactions across the generations enabled by civil society, government should consider a loneliness tax — levying 5p on each self-service checkout transaction, for instance.

EDUCATION

All of these ideas depend on a culture change which may take a generation or more to truly bed in. Therefore, schools should be at the forefront of connecting the generations for the long term. Local social history — taught by the people who made it — should be compulsory up to 16. Older people should be inspired and incentivised through a huge national campaign and the creation of the Connecting State to act as mentors to children and teenagers, not just through brilliant organisations like The Challenge, but through the standard curriculum too. Schools should all be required to have members of staff over the age of 65 working on site, especially in those key pastoral roles that can help us to understand ourselves and one another.

And we should abandon the culture, perpetuated by our school system, that says that age is a determinant of ability or achievement — by bringing class groups together according to their levels and interests, rather than by age alone. To underpin this, what we teach in schools should be more holistic, focusing on the value of character and personality as much as skills and qualifications which can be overvalued according to the economic vagaries of the day — with more education on building and managing the relationships and networks which for a social species will always matter.

DEMOCRACY

Finally, when it comes to our democracy, government should do more to engage the voices of all its citizens, and in particular those whose are currently least heard, through a commitment to votes at 16 and more democratic education in schools — to achieve a better representation of younger people’s votes alongside older people’s. And government, business and civil society should come together to create a new campaign — Re:generation — to challenge some of those stereotypes in our media and wider culture that do so much to divide younger and older people.

CONNECTING THE GENERATIONS

Politicians are clearly ready to engage with this agenda of how we help our generations — and our communities — to better connect. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration is a vanguard but there are many other positive initiatives too.

In 2016, the Work and Pensions Committee produced a report on intergenerational fairness before its findings were jettisoned by Brexit. The Jo Cox Foundation and Loneliness Commission are both doing important work. Some of that work could be integrated and coordinated across Westminster and Whitehall by a new social integration champion with a seat at the cabinet table.

Because if Theresa May’s own social agenda, so powerfully articulated on the steps of Downing Street last summer, ever needed a shot in the arm — and a reminder that our generational togetherness along with our broader social cohesion requires deep and long-term attention — it arrived on June 9th when older and younger people alike called for a return to a social compact and a craving for community, and ‘a country that works for everyone.’

Founder/CEO of @TheCaresFamily . @ObamaFoundation Fellow. Previously @Ed_Miliband aide and @LabourList editor. Camden head, MUFC heart.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store