12/10/2013 03:11 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Out of Many, One: Uniting the Changing Faces of America

Co-authored with Hilary Pennington, director of the Generations Initiative & Vice President of the Ford Foundation.

Nelson Mandela was a great man who embodied the African concept of Ubuntu. Originally a Zulu term meaning unity, Ubuntu closely mirrors our country's powerful founding narrative: E Pluribus Unum, "out of many, one."

Today that narrative is in danger as the United States experiences a demographic transformation unlike any we've experienced before.

What are these demographic changes?

First we're living longer and healthier lives. By 2043, one in five U.S. residents will be age 65 or older. If embraced, this increase in human capital asset could have tremendous value to our communities. Think about Mandela's accomplishments in later life. He was in his mid-70's when he was president of South Africa and 89 when he co-founded The Elders, a group of statesmen on a mission to tackle the world's toughest problems.

Second, we're more racially and ethnically diverse. By 2042, more than half of the nation will be people of color. Unlike other countries, our young population will continue to grow for decades to come. They will replenish the workforce and, with proper investments, continue to propel our economy and country forward.

Third, there is a growing racial generation gap. Today, more than half of Americans under the age of five are people of color compared to less than one in five Americans over 65. Although they might not be aware of it, the success of these generations is intimately connected.

Right now, our political debates pose a false conflict: that our country can't possibly invest in older generations while nurturing younger generations. Yet our work suggests that the American public doesn't share these views.

Our two groups, Generations United and the Generations Initiative, today released Out of Many, One: Uniting the Changing Faces of America. Our research found that as a whole, Americans are aware of the changing age and race demographics in the U.S., and are generally positive about them.

In fact our research shows that while 85 percent of respondents noticed change in the age demographics, only 6 percent reported a negative feeling. And while 81 percent noticed change in the racial or ethnic makeup of their communities, only 9 percent reported a negative feeling.

Most significant, younger and older people were the most likely to report a positive emotion about the changes.

And contrary to zero sum advocates, 72 percent of respondents believe that publicly funded programs targeted at specific age groups such as K-12 education or Social Security aren't burdensome responsibilities, but investments that benefit all generations.

Again, the youngest and oldest respondents were equally as likely to agree suggesting the much touted "generational conflict" narrative is neither the majority view nor greater among our country's "bookend" generations. They understand that every generation plays a critical role in shaping the future.

The report challenged experts in four areas -- transportation, employment, housing and civic engagement -- to use an intergenerational lens to suggest policies that would have a positive impact on civil society.

Could they come up with disruptive policy ideas that might unite generations and strengthen our communities?

Their creative responses include:

• Encouraging "homeshare" agreements that reduce student loans in exchange for students taking on tasks that enable older adults to age in place

• Developing Time Banks which allow people to bank time by helping others and later redeem it for a service they need or want

• Creating workforce development programs like apprenticeships and time-sharing that expand options to keep older workers in the workforce, while encouraging faster skill development and advancement for entry level younger workers

The success of all generations is and must be intimately connected in order for all to thrive and survive. When Nelson Mandela helped launch The Elders he said they "will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair." His sense of Ubuntu recognized that none of us lives in isolation.

Let us honor Mandela's legacy and the founding story of our own country by committing to unite the changing faces of America -- E Pluribus Unum "out of many, one."