THE BLOG
11/14/2014 04:01 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

Generational Warfare Is a Media Myth: Seniors and Kids Need Each Other

A public school in a gritty, industrial city, with most of its students growing up in poverty, but with scores near the top of educational performance charts for charter schools in the state of Ohio. What's the secret of its success? Surprisingly, it appears to be an alliance between kids and adults old enough to be their grandparents.

Founded in 2000, The Intergenerational School in Cleveland offers an innovative approach to addressing two urgent social issues: the soaring number of young people who desperately need social, emotional and academic support, and the skyrocketing population of older people seeking new roles contributing to the greater good. "Together we all learn from the past, live and grow in the moment and have hope for the future" -- that's how one supporter of this K-8 charter school sums up their interactions.

At first, this model may seem far-fetched -- inspiration for a gauzy human interest story, perhaps, but with little to teach us about tackling big, real-world challenges such as educating disadvantaged kids or navigating rapidly shifting demographic terrain in a society that will soon have more people over 60 than under 15 -- and by 2030, more over 60 than under 20. After all, isn't the unhappy verdict already in? Pundits and policy gurus have long been sounding the alarm, warning that the interests of young and old are on an inevitable collision course -- kids vs. canes.
But, the halls of Cleveland's Intergenerational School tell a very different story -- one of positive outcomes for all involved and a palpable sense of interdependence, not dystopian conflict. Indeed, for all the hand-wringing about a coming generational war, there is reason to think that our aging population can be an extraordinary asset for young people in desperate need of guidance and support.

The reasons for this are simple. For starters, children thrive on face-to-face contact with caring adults. Indeed, there is no substitute for such connections when it comes to everything from language through development, argues psychologist Susan Pinker, who summarizes a vast array of related research in her new book The Village Effect.

At the same time, adults at midlife and beyond tend to experience a powerful desire to nurture the next generations -- what visionary psychologist Erik Erikson called "generativity." Significantly, individuals who follow this natural impulse to connect with and guide younger generations are three times more likely to be happy in later life than their peers who do not, according to research by George Vaillant of Harvard Medical School. Describing this fundamental impulse, he concludes simply: "biology flows downhill."

Equally important is the fact that older adults are especially adept at making the sort of human connections that children need. As Stanford's Laura Carstensen and her colleagues have demonstrated, aging is associated with more positive and balanced emotional states, making older people increasingly available for and skilled at close relationships, particularly those with children.

In short, we have before us a set of interlocking needs that fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with the promise of mutual benefit. And that's not just theory. Consider the track record of the AARP Experience Corps program, which mobilizes older people, mostly from low-income backgrounds, to help improve the reading skills of children from impoverished neighborhoods.

Students working with Experience Corps members have been shown to make 60 percent greater gains in critical literacy skills, and the boost to their reading skills is equivalent to placing them in classrooms with 40 percent fewer students, according to researchers from Washington University in St. Louis. Meanwhile, studies conducted by Johns Hopkins Schools of Medicine and Public Health reveal significant health gains for the volunteers themselves.

Other compelling models include Foster Grandparents, now approaching its 50th anniversary, which matches lower-income older people with children and carries a compelling motto for our fiscal times -- "every dollar spent twice" -- and intergenerational communities that bring together foster children and older adults, such as Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon and Treehouse in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

The time is ripe to build on this impressive foundation. One idea that merits serious consideration is creation of a Boomer Corps to channel the vast talents and experience of the "gray tsunami" where they are most needed -- early childhood programs, school classrooms and school-to-work transitions initiatives. These prospects are eminently do-able -- and long overdue.

With 10,000 boomers a day turning 65, it's time for society to mirror biology and itself "flow downhill," to encourage and enable connections that mine this vast human capital of older people in ways that contribute to a better futures for future generations. To be sure, an aging America will bring challenges and tradeoffs as well as opportunities, but this is all the more reason to make the most of what we have.

The Intergenerational School and other models are pointing the way. Let's follow.

Michael D. Eisner is the Chairman of The Eisner Foundation, which works to identify intergenerational solutions to society's challenges.

Marc Freedman is Founder/CEO of Encore.org and a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University.