Have current demographical challenges piqued young against old in a battle for resources, pensions or lower tax rates?  Do we see politics in terms of ‘what’s in it for my generation’?  It is of some concern that the Centre for Intergenerational practice in the United Kingdom comments that:

Changes in society have led to generations frequently becoming segregated from one another, this separation can lead to unrealistic and negative stereotypes, and a decrease in positive exchanges between them. Yet these separated generations do have resources of value to each other and furthermore share areas of concern. 

It does seem that Western culture in particular puts much less emphasis on learning from the respected wisdom of the elderly than other cultures, and supporting each other through all stages of life. We can also find ourselves using descriptions of young people which are perhaps unfair and cynical towards them such as ‘lazy’ or the long used cliché ‘young people these days’.

However, more and more we are seeing the pooling of family resources due to economic necessity. There are also some great ideas surfacing around the world on how to bring old and young together to help to address the demographical issues both groups face.  Things like community centres which offer ‘inter-generational’ activities that are designed to include and benefit both the old and the young.  Or a free service Plunket here in New Zealand offers for new mothers where, normally retired, volunteers look after an overwhelmed new mother’s baby for an hour or two while she sleeps. 

Such ideas are examples of a win/win situation.  A retired person who loves spending time with new babies – and may not have any grandchildren of his or her own – donating an hour or two of time every so often to help a mother who sees her as an angel in disguise in that moment.  What other such win/win situations can we think of for society as we consider the challenges of an aging population?

In a recent article in The Guardian, Stephen Burke, co-founder of the British organisation “United for All Ages”, discusses just this.  He emphasises the importance of having an attitude of giving and kindness, rather than one of ‘what’s in it for me’.  Cultivating this sort of attitude will become increasingly important as the elderly increasingly outnumber the younger generations.  Then again, who’s to say most people don’t think about the big picture?  Elderly people have children and grandchildren who they want good lives for.  Equally, young people care about their parents and grandparents.  Burke comments that:

Rather than dividing age groups, politicians should be seeking to develop a progressive contract that unites all ages… From active ageing to tackling obesity and giving children a good start in life, we must help people to help themselves. Bringing older and young people together has multiple benefits – from reducing loneliness and sharing skills to tackling the care crisis.

…schemes such as Homeshare and Shared Lives enable adults of different ages to share a home with mutual benefits. But much more could be done to tackle the housing shortage – such as by encouraging and supporting older people to downsize and free up family-sized homes.

Burke further suggests that policymakers need to think about the way we deliver services and how we can make better use of our resources.  Some other great ideas recognised by “United for All Ages” in the United Kingdom include programmes which facilitate young people visiting aged care facilities to provide learning projects, an emphasis on hospice care for the sick and dying, and even an organisation which facilitates intergenerational artwork.  I have copied a clip from the group below.  What other ways can we create more integrated communities for mututally beneficial solutions? 


Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...