A shared future — why young and old have so much to gain from one another

In my job, I’m sometimes asked “What’s the difference between Baby Boomers and the Millennials?” It’s a strange and simplistic question, and one that seeks to highlight the divergences we have in our experience rather than what we all have in common.

But in the context of the globalisation, digitisation, gentrification, migration, housing bubbles and inequality that define the past forty years of rapid social change — and the more recent schisms in our subsequent electoral expressions — it’s also a question that requires more consideration than ever.

And it’s a question that, as we try to piece together those shards of separation that have sheared at our integration in recent times, has challenges and opportunities for policymakers of all stripes, with implications and responsibilities across the economic, housing, education, communities, welfare and Brexit agendas — as well as for the media.

Because beyond the reductive headline provocation, there are more nuanced issues of identity and attitudes at hand which have a fundamental impact on people’s access to income, power, opportunity, connection, debate and democracy — and how people perceive themselves, others, the state of the country and their place in the world.

For example, in our fast moving, connected age, how do we ensure that no one, regardless of their age, class, ethnicity, faith or income feels left behind? In a time when voting patterns, and indeed voting participation, are diverging across the generations, how do we make sure that government, and our politics at large, represent the needs of everyone in our communities?

And, beyond policy and psephology, how do we begin to marry two diametrically opposed worldviews — one forged on a backdrop of war, rationing and solidarity that ultimately led to the founding of the National Health Service and the Welfare State, the other on post-Thatcherite individualism?

These deeper questions will need to be addressed if we are to establish anything like intergenerational justice, let alone authentic integration. To find answers, they require an analysis of how we got here, and new ideas for how we can help people to live not just parallel experiences, but fully shared lives.

The reality of our social and generational divides has been brutally exposed in recent years. A distance was already opening up when, in 2011, some of our biggest cities were torn apart by riots. As I wrote at the time the causes of those troubles were multiple and deep-rooted.

They included despair amongst some communities at the power of the state, particularly the police. A rapid rise in youth unemployment, which spiked to 1 million that year — and which at 21% was twice the overall UK rate at the time — was another key part of the picture.

A general inequality of life chances was also at play. In the wake of the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009, government was embarking on a major new programme of ‘austerity’ — cutting welfare, public services and the local authority settlements that were designed to bring power and security closer to people. People between 22 and 30 were in the process of becoming 7% worse off; the over-60s 11% better off.

Meanwhile, as student fees were hiked to £9,000 a year the prospects of joining the ranks of the well-connected felt further and further away for many young people: an Ipsos Mori poll in 2010 showed that 75% of people believed the change in policy would make teenagers from more deprived backgrounds less likely to go to university.

Even if those initial urges to lash out have, for the time being, largely, though not entirely, quietened, the anger amongst many young people remains. And in our current context, it’s no wonder that young people so often feel estranged from their older neighbours and the political system. In the 2015 general election, people aged 18 to 24 were half as likely to vote as those over 65. Even in the European Union referendum the higher-than-normal 64% youth turnout was long shy of the 72% national vote.

It’s not just who votes, of course, that matters, but how people vote too — and again the discrepancies between young and old are striking. In that finely balanced 2015 election, Labour attracted more votes from young people than the Conservatives, while its vote share amongst over-65s dropped to just one in four. With older people more likely to read newspapers, with their long established editorial positions, and younger people increasingly consuming news and content through digital platforms connected to their own social networks those trends may only perpetuate over time.

Although a relatively crude distillation, information firm Experian’s demographic mosaic groups offer an explanation as to how divergent life experiences have led to such distinct worldviews. 80% of its “Vintage Value” category is over 65. A majority live alone in social rented accommodation, and make little use of the internet. Most are on low incomes drawn from state pensions, other benefits and savings. The “Rental Hubs” generation, on the other hand, are predominantly under the age of 35, have become accustomed to digitisation, are professionally ambitious and live in private rented accommodation.

Not all older and younger people fit into these categories, of course. But in our growing big cities in particular, where people live closest together but often worlds apart, these differences in culture and attitudes are clear, and stark.

That’s why the two charities that I run, North London Cares and South London Cares, exist — to reduce social isolation amongst older people and young professionals alike; to harness the people and places around us so that neighbours can help one another improve their skills, power, connection and wellbeing in a rapidly changing world; and to bring people together across social, generational, digital, cultural and attitudinal divides.

We’ve been gobsmacked by the results. 81% of older people we work with regularly tell us they feel better connected as a result of their participation. 77% say their relations with young people have improved, rising to 84% for those whose relations were previously negative.

Three out of four older people who are regularly part of our social clubs and one-to-one friendship matches say they have access to a greater range of experiences, while nearly nine in ten are better able to appreciate the world around them. Older neighbours report feeling happier, a greater sense of community and that they have more people to rely on.

And the connection goes both ways too — with 97% of the young professionals saying that they are better able to appreciate older people and 98% feeling a greater connection to their community.

In an age where housing is increasingly “ghettoised”, with council estates and gated new-build apartment blocks exacerbating a sense of ‘otherness’ we’re particularly pleased that our evaluations show that The Cares Family’s work does not just bring people together across generational lines, but across social lines too — with a similar proportion of private and social rented tenants participating in the networks.

But with our media filter bubbles and national dialogue continuing to underscore our differences, and networks turning ever more inwards, we need more ideas and initiatives to bring people together to tackle our problem of disconnection in a connected age.

Government can make a start right away, by developing a proper social integration strategy with a full time champion attending cabinet and working across departments to push for the type of programmes and funding that can help tighten our common bonds in a time of rapid change.

On welfare, reforms can focus on what’s strong about communities — incentivising older and younger people alike to share their time, skills and networks for the benefit of others, and draw back on universal benefits in order to focus on those who are hardest up.

Next, more homes — and mixed housing developments in particular — would create the security and spaces for people to live together, and spend time together, in the real world. Building on the Dutch model, residential homes should not be exclusively for the oldest and frailest people, but places where young people, too, can mix with their older neighbours and create meaningful relationships that benefit everyone.

To fix the challenge of young people feeling disengaged from the political status quo, the franchise should be extended to everyone over 16. In the letter of most parts of the law, those 16–18 year olds are already adults — they can have children, receive state benefits, join the armed forces and pay tax on earnings — so they should be trusted with the vote too.

And why not explore the notion of a ‘GI Bill’-style investment, that helps people of all ages to build a business, buy a home, or save, according to their own priorities — rather than plastering over the cracks of an unfair economy with never-ending tax credits that do more to offset poverty rather than to really solve it?

Across the community sector, too, we can do more to bridge the gaps of disconnection in our connected age. Bite the Ballot has done much good work to engage young people politically across the country. Currently working in Sixth Form colleges, youth centres, faith groups and online, they should expand their vision to bring older people to the table too, to demonstrate the culture and importance of participation and to share understanding across generations.

The Centre for Ageing Better, which is working to better establish and understand the evidence around that process that we’re all going through, should expand its remit to include how attitudes and experiences amongst young people can develop through time and into later life.

And across political parties, the media, charities and business, we should build a new ‘Re:generation’ campaign coalition — one that challenges our national stereotypes of younger and older people alike, puts a new spin on people’s perceptions of ‘dynamism’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘lucky and unlucky generations’, and helps us to change our collective attitudes towards age groups and social attitudes other than our own.

There’s a convention and a cliché amongst many groups working with older and younger generations — that ‘age doesn’t matter’. But age does matter. Age is a collection of life experiences, of love and loss, of hope and heartbreak, of mischief and misadventure. And context matters too. People who were brought up in a time of war or restraint or sexual revolution or digital abundance may think differently from those of other generations, and act accordingly. That’s OK. Life would be boring if we were on repeat.

But in our context of a rapidly transforming world shifting faster than our sense of identity can keep up with, of rolling news and a new world disorder, of connection and disconnection, we should do more — through every channel of civic life — to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, circumstance or background, can feel a part of, rather than left behind by, their changing communities and their changing country.

Then we might realise that people from across social and generational lines still have so much in common, and so much to gain from one another — in shared time, laughter, new experiences and, ultimately, their shared futures.

A shorter version of this essay was first published in a joint pamphlet by The Fabian Society, Bright Blue and social integration charity The Challenge.

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