A Roadmap for Making the Most of Our Increasingly Multigenerational Society


We’re living in the most age-diverse society in human history—and one of the most age-segregated. We’re missing out on the complementary skills and talents people of all ages can bring to the table, the power and energy they can create, the divides they can bridge, the communities and country they can build together. Grounded in research and on-the-ground examples, this article envisions a world where older and younger people harness the power of cogeneration, joining forces to solve problems, bridge divides, and co-create the future.

Key Words:

intergenerational, cogeneration, age diversity, age segregation, ageism, connection, collaboration, problem solving, mental health, environment, climate, education, service, AmeriCorps


America today is the most age-diverse society in human history. Research from Stanford’s Center on Longevity shows a dramatic shift in the age distribution of the U.S. population from the 1900s, when half of our population was younger than age 20, and each subsequent older age group had fewer people than the one before (Johfre, 2021). Today, we have approximately the same number of people at every age from 0 to 74, with 25% of the population younger than age 20; 23% older than age 60, and 52% in between.

At the same time, we’re arguably the most age-segregated nation in history. Young people are clustered in schools and other settings exclusively with other young people; middle-age people predominate in workplaces; and older adults are routinely shunted to elder-only settings such as senior centers, retirement communities, and nursing homes. The generations often cease to meet at all, especially outside of families. Professor Andrew Scott of London Business School has a name for it: “age apartheid” (Aviva Investors, 2018).

We’re a society out of sync. Our demographic trajectory, cultural norms, and social organization stand at odds. It’s no surprise that there are signs of generational tension, with “OK Boomer” and “OK Millennial” barbs flying; that ageism continues toward both old and young adults; and that our Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has raised the red flag on the epidemic of social isolation and loneliness, with older and younger people the two most isolated groups in society.

We face the prospect of worsening division and dysfunction—even generational war—at a time when isolation, polarization, and human-resource constraints are all urgent problems. Just as important, widespread separation and segregation prevent us from realizing an immense opportunity presented by growing age diversity. We have the chance to forge meaningful bonds across generations, bridge divides of all kinds, and create stronger communities, bringing a wider array of skills and perspectives to bear on today’s most pressing problems, even recapturing a sense of the wholeness of life. The question remains: Will we become a nation where generations are not only apart but at each other’s throats, or one that makes the most of our multigenerational future? The choice is ours.

The Cogenerational Solution

Embracing the multigenerational opportunity begins with reversing the scourge of age apartheid. But realizing the full promise of our new demographics will mean going beyond that, beyond greater interaction or even one-way efforts enabling one generation to serve the other, for all their virtues. It will mean both greater generational proximity, shared purpose—and just as important—shared problem-solving. We call that level of connection and collaboration cogeneration and believe it’s an essential, effective strategy and a powerful solution in and of itself.

‘Embracing the multigenerational opportunity begins with reversing the scourge of age apartheid.’

It won’t be easy to catalyze a dramatic shift in the societal norm for the greater good from generational segregation to generational solidarity. We’ll need to surmount a trio of barriers stopping what’s natural—supported by an accumulation of research about human thriving, not to mention thousands of years of human behavior—from once again becoming the norm. The barriers are:

A Failure of Imagination: After more than a century of segregation and separation, it is often hard to envision what a thriving multigenerational society looks like without slipping into sentimentality or cynicism. Meeting the multigenerational moment will require us to show how this idea is beginning to take shape and why that matters today more than ever.

A Failure of Innovation: After thoroughly sorting society by age, we are going to need to be as creative in bringing the generations together as we’ve been in splitting them apart. It will require growing the existing constellation of opportunities for older and younger generations to work in solidarity for social impact. And it will require sparking bold new ideas that bring young and old together, on equal footing, to solve problems, forge bonds, and bridge divides.

A Failure of Impetus and Investment: Moving beyond promising but boutique cogenerational models to a scale commensurate with the need and opportunity will require a thriving movement of changemakers unleashing the unique strengths of young and old alike—and increased investment. The vast majority of funders now support programs helping either younger or older people; only a few support programs that involve both older and younger people, leveraging what the Eisner Foundation, a philanthropic organization focused exclusively on funding intergenerational programs, describes as “every dollar spent twice” (Donloe, 2021).

Cogeneration Is in the Air

Making cogeneration a viable alternative might sound utopian against the backdrop of an age-segregated nation, but in truth, our era of separation and segregation amounts to an unhappy aberration in the arc of human history. Cross-generational connection and collaboration runs with the grain of much that we know about human evolution, development, and thriving.

Evolutionary anthropologists Raziel Davison and Michael Gurven (2022) have conducted extensive research on the importance of elders and their role, over millions of years, ensuring the success of the human species through food sharing, foraging, increasing the survival rate of parents, and teaching the young relevant skills, world views, and how to socialize. Grandparents are the key to us becoming human beings in the first place.

But it turns out meaningful interactions with younger generations are critical for the health and well-being of older generations as well. In his book, Aging Well, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant (2002) highlights a study he led that spanned more than 3 decades, showing that older adults who invested in, cared for, and developed the next generation were 3 times as likely to be happy as those who did not. Indeed, the needs and assets of older and younger people fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. After a century of generational separation and segregation, change is finally in the air—in popular culture, behavioral shifts, and attitudinal research.

In fact, it’s not just in the air—it is, literally, on the air. Groundbreaking, award-winning television shows like Hacks, Only Murders in the Building, Ted Lasso, Abbott Elementary, and The Last of Us have featured older and younger characters working together. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, 60 years apart in age, won Grammys for their duets (Gracie, 2022). Recent films ranging from A Man Called Otto, to Top Gun Maverick, to Everything Everywhere All at Once have featured Hollywood icons crossing generational divides to find new, shared purpose. A recent issue of the New York Times Sunday Style Magazine dedicated an entire issue to pairs of older and younger artists talking about how they draw inspiration from one another (Yanagihara, 2023).

New research shows that a sizable segment of the younger and older populations is hungry for opportunities not only for intergenerational connection, but cogenerational action—the chance to join forces in co-creating a better future (Encore.org, 2022).

Commissioned by CoGenerate in 2022, researchers at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago surveyed a nationally representative group of 1,500 adults, ages 18 to 94, to gauge interest in working across generations to “improve the world … in any capacity—volunteering, getting involved in an issue you care about, or working in a paid job” (Halvorsen et al., 2022). The results are cause for optimism. Nearly everyone surveyed said they believe cogeneration will make life better in America and that working together across generations will help us more easily solve society’s problems and reduce divisions in our society. Moreover, people of all ages want opportunities to cogenerate.

Source: https://cogenerate.org/research/cogeneration/

Additionally, the survey shows that the fit is a powerful one: Young people want to learn from older ones, older people want to share what they know, and vice versa. Across the board, respondents’ top reasons for cogenerating relate to learning, sharing their knowledge, and increasing their appreciation for other generations.

While there’s strong demand for cogeneration across all ages, the strongest interest actually resides in young people, ages 18 to 25 (Encore.org, 2022). They’re also the most likely to act on this enthusiasm. You can almost hear Gen Z calling their elders to action, delivering the message that we can’t do this without you; no generation can do this alone.

Cogeneration on the Ground

Despite a desire to cogenerate, most people say they can’t find opportunities to work with people from other generations. Others say they don’t know how to productively engage or communicate across generational lines (Encore.org, 2022). We’re a society that has let those muscles atrophy.

Decades of policies and practices have harnessed innovation to physically segregate younger and older people for the sake of efficiency, reshuffling the structures and habits of society in ways that make it difficult to come across someone of another age group in daily life, let alone to get to know them or join forces for the greater good.

Only a few funders support programs involving older and younger people.

This segregation has resulted in a disastrous cascade of problems that we know all too well—from ageism to loneliness to splintered movements for social change. Innovation is partly to blame for getting us into this mess—but it also can help to get us out of it. We need to influence our society at the systems level, stimulating new models and new ways of doing things that bring older and younger people together to tackle some of the most intractable problems of our times.

So, what do older and younger generations want to do together?

It turns out, researchers at the University of Chicago found, different generations articulate different priorities (Encore.org, 2022). The three youngest generations want to work together to find solutions to the mental health crisis. The two older ones are more focused on the environment. All generations want to work on education. That makes these three issue areas ripe for cogenerational innovation.

Mental health. We have become a deeply lonely country, with 41% of adults older than age 65 and twice that number of young adults reporting feeling lonely (Holt-Lunstad, 2023). The Surgeon General’s recent advisory on our country’s epidemic of loneliness and isolation raised the alarm on a corresponding rise in our country’s mental health crisis. According to the Surgeon General, the risk of developing depression among people who report feeling lonely is more than double that of people who rarely or never feel lonely—and the compounding impacts of loneliness and social isolation in childhood increase the risk of depression and anxiety for young people both immediately and well into the future (Holt-Lunstad, 2023).

Cogenerational approaches anchored in social connection and collaboration offer the perfect antidote to social isolation and loneliness. The Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, for example, launched a new, three-generation wellness pilot program last fall based on the 87 emotions featured in Brené Brown’s book, Atlas of the Heart (Gibson, 2023). AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparents (all ages 55 and older) joined forces with a mix of college students and other young adults in the community to co-create and teach lesson plans on emotional literacy to youth at two local Boys and Girls Clubs and the local YouthBuild charter school. Together, they created meaningful connections within and across generations, and, just as important, modeled the importance of prioritizing mental wellness at every life stage.

Other organizations are developing intergenerational and culturally specific approaches to mental health. Hey Auntie!—a digital wellness platform and community rooted in the ethos and cultural legacy of the Black Auntie—is one example. It addresses racial disparities in mental health for Black women across ages and life stages by curating groups of six women (half older than age 50 and half younger) who are matched for a series of virtual conversations on a set of topics designed to help them get to know one another and develop a robust, intergenerational network of support.

Environment. Contrary to popular narratives that older generations don’t care about climate change, recent opinion polls show awareness and concern have actually increased across all generations at a similar rate (Milfont et al., 2021). The generation gap occurs because older people started from a lower initial belief level to begin with. This, combined with older generations’ deep interest in working on environmental issues with young people (Halvorsen et al., 2022), offers hope for collective action to protect the well-being of our planet.

Third Act, founded and cogenerationally led by Bill McKibben and Vanessa Arcara, is harnessing the vast skills and resources of the fast-growing ages 60 and older population in the United States to protect the climate and strengthen democracy for future generations. Whether educating older generations on climate issues, co-authoring Op-Eds with youth to expand their platform and voice, or rallying older people to show up as allies to young people in local campaigns, Third Act is creating a powerful generational bridge in support of a shared future.

Young Entertainment Activist (YEA) founder Samuel Rubin is taking a different cogenerational approach to tackling the climate problem by launching the annual Hollywood Climate Summit, a gathering of thousands of environmental changemakers and entertainment-industry professionals of all ages. The most recent Summit included an intergenerational panel featuring Oscar-nominated actor Stephanie Hsu, Youth Climate Collaborative founder Pooja Tivawala, and actor/author/activist Mimi Kennedy, all discussing popular media’s surface-level depictions of climate activists and generational differences on the crisis, ageism and discrimination in Hollywood, and actionable advice for how to shift those portrayals and experiences in future content.

Education. An issue area that is consistently a top priority for older and younger generations is education, creating ample opportunity to leverage the unique skills and assets of older and younger generations to support student learning and academic outcomes. Ampact’s Reading and Math Corps is one such organization. Their program in Georgia and Minneapolis mobilizes more than 500 age-diverse AmeriCorps members as tutors in schools, working together to help K–8 students build their reading and math skills and become better learners. Along the way, the tutors form lasting intergenerational friendships. In a recent survey, 70% of the tutors said serving alongside a member of a different generation increased opportunities to interact meaningfully with people of a different generation, 48% said serving on an intergenerational team made them better at establishing strong relationships with the students they tutored, and 60% said it made them a better tutor.

‘The three youngest generations want to work together to find solutions to the mental health crisis. The two older ones are more focused on the environment.’

Another area of cogenerational innovation in education is directed at affordable housing for college students. Today, one fifth of U.S. students struggle to find affordable rent near campus, impacting college completion rates and future financial stability (Cushnahan, 2022). Meanwhile, millions of spare bedrooms sit empty every night, often in the homes of older adults living alone, struggling to maintain their houses as they age. Second Story Collective, a community partnership with Drexel University in West Philadelphia, and HomeShare OC, a program of Homeless Intervention Services of Orange County, match housing insecure college students with older empty nesters. Students pay below-market rent and provide extra help around the house. Older adults get to age in place. These intergenerational co-living models build caring, intentional communities that are a clear win-win.

A Vision for the Future

In his book How Change Happens, Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein (2023) argues that prevailing societal norms often are far more fragile than assumed, poised to be disrupted by new norms better-suited to present and future circumstances. We’re convinced that the longstanding societal default of generations apart is increasingly being challenged by a new norm characterized by generations together, joining forces for mutual benefit and wider impact. We’re at a ripe moment for change—a tipping point.

As the previous examples illustrate, when older and younger generations work together to solve problems, it’s a clear win-win for society. Intergenerational connection and collaboration have the potential to:

  • Mitigate the public health crisis that loneliness poses for young and old alike.
  • Reduce ageism and improve the health and well-being of people of all ages.
  • Expand young people’s network of relationships with people who have life experience and career connections.
  • Build a more sustainable and robust multigenerational workforce.
  • Improve service to communities by bringing a greater diversity of perspectives, skills, and life experiences to the table.
  • Reduce polarization and create more empathy and understanding across the divides of race, culture, background, economic status, and identity.

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that the old norm will be displaced easily or automatically, by narrative shifts or innovation alone. We need to put cogeneration on the path toward scalability and sustainability by supporting a thriving, connected and well-funded field with a life of its own. To achieve that, we need to work at a systems level, proactively breaking down age silos in institutional structures, policies, and funding.

Some early signals of change on the horizon are starting to take shape at the city, state and national levels.

For example, the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity recently announced a partnership with the city’s Department of Aging to facilitate more cogenerational approaches to their work (Hernandez, 2023). This collaborative structure is inspired by a three-generation model developed by the city to address the early childhood workforce shortage in Los Angeles County by giving community college students a paid internship at a child development center—and pairing them with an older, experienced educator to support their success.

Governor Wes Moore of Maryland has launched an ambitious new Department of Service and Civic Innovation anchored in an intergenerational approach that offers every graduating high schooler in the state the chance to become an AmeriCorps member. Each member will be assigned to an older mentor for training and development (Maryland Department of Service and Civic Innovation, 2023). United in shared purpose and service, young people and older adults alike will have the opportunity to not only serve their communities, but also to serve with their communities.

At the federal level, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Harvard psychologist Rick Weissbourd (2023) recently penned an Op-Ed in TIME calling on policymakers to support the expansion of programs like CoGenerate’s Generations Serving Together, “which unites older and younger generations in solving problems that no generation can solve alone and that curbs loneliness, which especially afflicts not only the young but senior citizens.” Dramatic expansion of programs that encourage intergenerational connection and collaboration will require more flexible federal and philanthropic dollars that move beyond the traditional silos of youth or aging funding and instead incentivize intersectional approaches to problem-solving that can help us unleash a multigenerational force for good.

The time is ripe to create a society that capitalizes on the opportunity of age diversity in ways that enrich individual lives, create greater social cohesion, and establish a new pattern of cross-generational collaboration suited to our multigenerational future. One that reflects all that we know about how critical generational connection and collaboration are to individual and social well-being.

We envision a world where generations come together collaboratively in neighborhoods, educational settings, workplaces, in all aspects of daily life. One where the perspectives and skills of youngers and olders are seen as essential ingredients in effective problem-solving. One where an ethos of cogenerativity, of working together across difference to create a better future, becomes the norm.

Instead of a multigenerational future defined by conflict, misunderstanding, and isolation, let’s help create the village it will take for all ages to come together in joy, understanding, and action. Each of us has a role to play in building that better future.

Eunice Lin Nichols is co-CEO of CoGenerate, and received the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for advancing innovative and effective solutions for California’s most significant issues. Marc Freedman, co-CEO and founder of CoGenerate, is one of the nation’s leading experts on our multigenerational future. His most recent book is How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations (PublicAffairs/Hachette Book Group, 2018). Photo credit: Courtesy CoGenerate. 

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Tint Media



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