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Imagine a member of Generation Z, born in 1997 (ie, after the millennials of Generation Y). She expects to live to 100, especially given future techniques to regenerate tissue. But she also expects to spend much of that time on a planet that has warmed by two or three degrees. Moreover, she may well rent and work into her eighties, whereas her grandparents bought homes in their twenties, retired in their fifties, and are bequeathing her a legacy of government debt broadly equal to gross domestic product. No wonder she is angry.
On the other hand, imagine a baby boomer. He was shoved out of the workforce aged 59, his decades of experience instantly forgotten. Now he feels patronised or treated with contempt by younger people — if he ever meets any, given that he lives alone in an ageing small town. No wonder he is angry.
The generational clash in western societies may be sharper than the economic and racial divides with which it overlaps. The UK in particular is now headed for a confrontation between older Leavers and younger Remainers over Brexit. To defuse generational conflict, we need to end generational segregation — “a grievous wound that we have inflicted on ourselves”, argues Marc Freedman, author of How to Live Forever.
For most of history, the generations mixed much more, explained Freedman at this month’s Longevity Forum in London, where I picked up many of these ideas. Young people rarely attended university, older people rarely retired, and so they often worked together and shared multigenerational households. Many didn’t know how old they were. Chronological age mattered so little, notes Brown University historian Howard Chudacoff, that the “Happy Birthday” song (first published in 1912) was barely known until 1934.
But then we developed what Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, authors of The 100-Year Life, call the “three-stage life”: young people study, those from their twenties through 60 work, while the old are retired, voluntarily or not, and often segregated from everyone else. (My father-in-law lives in an isolated “retirement community” in South Carolina, where residents can keep pets but not children.) Thanksgiving this week is a rare day when Americans of all generations will meet.
Given that old people have been excluded from work, it’s no wonder they have resorted to capturing the welfare state. (In Brazil, to cite an extreme case, half the federal budget goes on pensions.) No wonder, too, that there is intergenerational suspicion: Freedman calls universities “the last bastions of age segregation”, which helps explain why older US Republicans tend to dislike them. And no wonder, more generally, that segregated generations have segregated world views. One example of this: in the US election of 2008, the comedian Sarah Silverman urged young Jews to fly to Florida to tell their grandparents to vote Obama. American millennials are about twice as likely as members of the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-1945) to be liberals, says Pew Research.
Old age has been extended but deprived of purpose. Esther Rantzen, the former British TV presenter who started the older people’s helpline The Silver Line, told the Longevity Forum that her callers were terrified of being a “burden” on the busy young. One woman told Rantzen: “I’m an optimist now. That’s how I can face another pointless day when I’m a waste of space.”
Over a million older Britons report going more than a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or relative, according to Age UK. I still feel guilty about the recent Sunday afternoon when I was sitting beside an older woman on a park bench, half-watching my children play. The woman began chatting to me. I answered monosyllabically, because I was craving a moment alone. But it may have been her only conversation of the day.
We mid-lifers often have too many relationships, while older people have too few. There’s an obvious trade here: we should transfer some of our relationships to them. Everyone mocks adults who live with their parents but I envied a friend whose parents moved from the US to an apartment in his building in Paris. The grandchildren got to see their grandparents, my friend and his wife got babysitting and the old got company. Freedman raves about the current shift in urban design towards intergenerational living: a Cleveland facility, for instance, where retirees and graduate students live together.
Today’s over-sixties — who are unprecedentedly healthy — should stay in the workplace too. Japan, where one worker in eight is now over 65, leads the way. The combination of young people’s cutting-edge knowledge and old people’s experience (recently dramatised in the film The Intern) is powerful, noted the British Conservative peer David Willetts at the London forum. It will just require young and old to treat each other as equals. Meanwhile, universities now offer older people “third-age” programmes. If we are going to live 100 years, we can’t stop learning aged 22.
The late 20th-century model of mass retirement, the first ever developed, was an experiment that failed. Now if we can desegregate the generations, we could heal our politics.
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