08/26/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2013

Why Workforce and Housing Aren't 'Elderly' Issues

Providers of long-term services and supports spend a good deal of time worrying about their ability to house and care for a rapidly growing older population over the next several decades.

There's plenty to worry about. By 2030, we're likely to find ourselves providing housing and services too many more vulnerable residents and clients -- and doing so with fewer qualified workers and a lot less money.

I'm glad we're beginning to prepare for what's ahead.

But I think we'll be much more successful if we stop focusing exclusively on how the coming demographic changes will impact the older generation.

Workforce and housing aren't "elderly issues." They affect -- and can be affected by -- Americans of all ages.

Unless we face that fact, we'll only fuel intergenerational competition for scarce resources. And we'll miss a golden opportunity to mobilize people of all ages to solve the problems we all face.

Intergenerational Workforce Solutions: Job Sharing and Mentoring

The economic upheaval we've experienced since 2007 has really upended our long-held assumptions about employment and retirement. My generation grew up thinking that we would retire comfortably at age 65 and that younger people would naturally come along to take our jobs and keep the economy growing.

That plan hasn't worked out too well for many older workers who simply cannot afford to retire, due to the severe hit their investment accounts took in 2007 and 2008. The recession has been just as devastating for younger people, who aren't finding the vacant career positions they thought would be waiting for them after they collected their diplomas.

So, what happens now? Do we simply advocate for the rights of older workers to stay in the workforce while ignoring the need of younger workers to enter it? Or is it time to start thinking differently about work and retirement so younger and older workers can collaborate on resolving this dilemma?

Some intriguing possibilities surfaced recently during an expert's panel sponsored by Generations United (GU), an advocacy group for children, youth and older adults; and The Generations Initiative, a foundation-funded effort to identify strategies for managing our changing demographic makeup. Those possibilities include:

  • Job Sharing: What if we encouraged older and younger workers to share a job? That would create career opportunities for younger workers while tapping older, more experienced workers to mentor and train their younger colleagues. Job sharing in the aging field could bolster on-the-job training programs. It could even cut down on workplace injuries. We could ask younger workers to carry out the physically demanding tasks associated with caregiving while continuing to rely on older workers for their clinical knowledge and caregiving experience.
  • A New Mentoring Model: Why not give younger people the opportunity to mentor older adults? Recently educated young workers could impart valuable skills and new perspectives to older workers. Technology is one area that comes to mind immediately, especially in light of a recent New York Times report documenting the career opportunities that older adults miss because they lack computer skills.
  • Intergenerational Competence: Many providers of aging services already ask older and younger employees to work together on care teams. Can we do a better job of preparing those teams for success by offering specialized training that encourages mutual respect and facilitates better communication between generations? Can we share best practices with other employers?
Intergenerational Housing Solutions: New Policies and Models

The threat of intergenerational competition also exists in the housing market. Many older adults need to sell their family homes for a price that will support them in retirement. But the depressed housing market keeps them trapped in homes that have become a physical and financial burden. With fewer homes on the market, many younger people find themselves shut out of the neighborhoods where they'd like to raise their own children.

Can we think differently about housing policy so that the generations can work together for mutual benefit? Again, our expert panel had some ideas:

  • Housing Policy: Older adults need financial support to help them move out of homes they no longer want so young adults can move in. Can public policies facilitate this exchange in a way that serves both generations?
  • Co-housing: Can we develop new intergenerational living models that give under-housed young people the opportunity to live with older adults who are over-housed? Such a model could make better use of our housing stock, provide affordable live-in support for older homeowners, and increase communication and understanding between generations.
  • Finding Common Ground: Providers of affordable senior housing are working hard to convince policy makers that Housing Plus Services models can help keep older renters healthy and independent for longer. But let's face it. Vulnerable families could also benefit if their housing properties became platforms for services and supports. Maybe it's time for senior housing providers to join forces with multi-family housing providers and advocate for a new Housing Plus Services model that serves all generations.

Exploring Intergenerational Solutions in a Dec. 2013 Report

GU and the Generations Initiative promise to examine these and other intergenerational solutions in a forthcoming Signature Report on the nation's changing demographics. The report will be released in Dec. 2013.

I'm looking forward to the report. I hope it invites all of us to begin thinking in new ways about how old and young can work together to solve the serious economic issues facing our nation.