Intergenerational Theory as a Tool to Diversify Practice and Policy


Intergenerational programs engage youth (ages 24 and younger) and adults (ages 50 and older) in intentional, shared programming. Research consistently reveals positive outcomes reflecting varied program goals and participants. Not everyone has equal access to intergenerational programs. Also, participants may not experience comparable outcomes. This article presents two theories; one depicts factors influencing access to intergenerational program participation. The second describes conditions of intergenerational contact that promote positive outcomes for all. Intergenerational examples illustrate positive results from the ways community stakeholders apply these theories to open opportunities for productivity via participating in intergenerational programs.

Key Words:

contact theory, ecological systems theory, intergenerational program, strengths-based, productive aging


Intergenerational programs intentionally engage youth and older adults in shared programming to achieve a range of goals. They can unite heterogeneous communities to support productive activities for everyone if they are done well. Some programs launch with the best intentions and pay great attention to intended participants, only to find the program does not achieve its goals and fades away after a few months. Grounding the program in theory increases chances of success.

This article presents two theories. The first, ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006), illustrates the layers of influence on intergenerational programs and their participants. The second, contact theory (Pettigrew, 1998), provides an easy-to-follow map for promoting positive connections between younger and older persons. Both are helpful for considering how individuals with diverse backgrounds, characteristics, and interests might have varied access to intergenerational programs, face unique barriers to participation, and seek different qualities in an intergenerational program. The call to action reflects how practitioners and policymakers shape the intergenerational environment experienced by young and older participants.

Ecological Systems Theory as a Tool to Diversify Practice and Policy

Ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006) depicts the bi-directional influence of an individual within multiple nested environments. Features of the micro-, meso-, macro-, exo-, and chrono-systems reflect the history, politics, culture, and societal mores that envelop a person. Thus, variations in individual development may be explored by studying how environments and individuals interact with and influence one another. This model allows us to consider intergenerational program participation. Features of each system can be studied to identify who most needs and can benefit from intergenerational programming, barriers to participation, and actions that can be taken to promote positive outcomes across varied participants and content. What follows is a tour of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems, illustrated with examples from mixed intergenerational programs.

Microsystems are settings in which an individual spends most of their time. For a child, this typically includes home and school; it may also include church or the home of grandparents or another caregiver. An individual’s need for opportunities to engage in intergenerational programs reflects their microsystems. An older adult whose microsystem is limited to home, where they have no interaction with young people, could benefit from joining in-person and virtual opportunities for productive activities with young people. Home-delivered meal programs offer opportunities to support social contact in the older adults’ microsystem (Thomas et al., 2020).

An individual also may be isolated by language or geography. For example, AGE to Age, a multisite program coordinated by the Northland Foundation to support intergenerational ties in rural Minnesota, develops shared programs to reflect the needs and interests in communities where they operate. Project SHINE has been replicated in several states (Skilton-Sylvester & Garcia, 1998), engaging university students as tutors to older immigrants preparing for citizenship tests. Extending intergenerational programs to the many types of microsystems younger and older people occupy will increase their opportunities to enjoy the benefits of intentional shared programming.

Mesosystems represent the interactions between an individual’s microsystems, such as the interactions between caregivers at a child’s home and their school. The strength of the school mesosystem is influenced by language and socioeconomics. If school representatives cannot speak the same language as a child’s caregiver or if a parent lacks the time and means to communicate with the school due to work or transportation obstacles, the mesosystem may be weak, and the student may be denied valuable opportunities. For example, teens might bring home a form asking parental permission for the student to volunteer at a residence for older adults. Parents might refuse this permission if they do not have the time or means to communicate with a teacher about supervision and safety concerns; intergenerational program leaders should ensure that communication about programming is delivered via multiple outlets and in languages the intended audience can comprehend (Henkin, 2021). In this way, potential participants (and their guardians) can make an informed decision about joining an intergenerational program.

‘Younger and older people both experience ageism, which frequently intersects with racism, sexism, and ableism.’

Exosystems represent settings that affect an individual indirectly. For example, a low-income older adult will not participate in a summer feeding program for school children, but policies that silo nutrition program funding by age group will impact opportunities that older adult has for intergenerational contact at their congregate meal site. Here, local or state government is the exosystem; the older adult does not have direct contact with it but is nonetheless impacted by its actions.

On a related note, mass media tends to stereotype older adults as incompetent and often promotes concepts like “stranger danger.” Such images can dampen public interest in providing environments or programs that encourage intergenerational contact, even when provisions are made to protect the safety of all involved. The reauthorized Older Americans Act (OAA) of 2020 added language that encourages “intergenerational service delivery.” These services would likely be supported through Title III funding, such as senior centers, which often serve older adults with limited financial means and social networks. By encouraging intergenerational service delivery, the OAA legislation represents an exosystem that supports intergenerational contact among those who might most benefit from it.

The macrosystem reflects attitudes and ideologies of a culture. Many of us belong to multiple cultures reflecting our nationality, citizenship, religion, and geographic location, among other things. In the United States, ideologies about young people and older adults tend to emphasize dependence over autonomy. Younger and older people both experience ageism, which frequently intersects with racism, sexism, and ableism (World Health Organization, 2021). It is no wonder that both the young and old are viewed through a deficit lens. In contrast, a macrosystem with strengths-based ideologies recognizes that younger and older people with heterogeneous interests and abilities have talents to share with one another and with society at large. Intergenerational programs typically embrace this strengths perspective by offering meaningful, developmental- and age-appropriate roles for younger and older participants (Gonzales & Jarrott, 2023).

Finally, the chronosystem reflects how systems change with time and as the individual matures. Young people who migrate to another country tend to acculturate, adopting ideologies reflecting their adopted country, which may change their view of older adults and their own aging over time. The influence of history on the experiences and opportunities of different generations is well-documented (Elder, 1998). Historical influences, like improved medicine that contributed to increased life expectancy and the opioid crisis that resulted in growing numbers of kinship caregivers, have shaped the need and opportunity for intergenerational relationships. Strengths-based intergenerational programs densely connected through individuals’ mesosystems can harness historical influences to support positive intergenerational ties and wide-ranging individual, relational, and community goals.

Ecological systems theory is valuable due to its comprehensiveness. It illustrates factors that can differentiate who might benefit most from intergenerational programming, who faces the most barriers to intergenerational program engagement, and the different ecosystems that can be targeted for change to enhance access to intergenerational programs. At every system level, individuals and organizations can act to support productive engagement in shared programming. Microsystems such as schools, churches, and health services can incorporate intergenerational opportunities, including by forming ties with other microsystems to create a mesosystem populated with people of all ages and varied opportunities for productive engagement. Within the exosystem, organizational, local, and national policies can promote rather than discourage intergenerational contact. For example, school districts can establish procedures that allow community members to volunteer in schools, or counties may decide to deliver services in a shared space to all who need them, regardless of age. Working to reduce ageism and other oppressive systems at the macrolevel can dispel negative attitudes and discourage discriminatory practices that limit contact between disparate groups.

Ecological systems theory’s comprehensiveness also can be frustrating, leaving individuals and organizations convinced that there is no way to impact all factors influencing access to and engagement with intergenerational programs. Recalling that a good intergenerational program is successful because of relationships among members, we should be encouraged to build relationships that allow each of us to effect positive change in our professional roles and as community members. In this way, we can each contribute to a supportive intergenerational environment. Next, we look beyond systems influencing intergenerational program availability and participation and call upon contact theory to guide how we bring young and older people together for shared, productive activities.

Contact Theory as a Tool to Diversify Practice and Policy

Contact theory is the most widely cited theory guiding intergenerational program development and study (Martins et al., 2019). First adapted to the intergenerational setting by Caspi (1984), the contact hypothesis was developed by Gordon Allport (1954) in response to racial tensions in the United States in the 1950s. Thomas Pettigrew, a student of Gordon Allport, continues to study contact theory today. Since its introduction, contact theory has been used to study intergroup contact across disparate racial, religious, disciplinary, and age groups (Pettigrew, 1998).

The theory is useful as it consists of just a handful of tenets associated with positive intergroup contact indicated by positive attitudinal change toward members of the outgroup. The more tenets present in the contact setting, the greater the likelihood that people will experience the contact positively. We apply those five tenets to intergenerational program examples next. Different cultures have their own customs of intergenerational contact, and program leaders should be familiar with those customs to achieve contact theory tenets in ways that are appropriate for intended participants. For example, some cultures have a clear generational hierarchy in which young people are expected to serve older adults; leaders of programming in settings predominated by members of such a culture will want to be intentional in how they enact the theory tenets to respect cultural traditions (Henkin, 2021).

‘A teen and an older adult conducting a mock job interview might be helping the teen build confidence and speaking skills while the adult develops generativity.’

Intergenerational contact is endorsed by authority figures, custom, or law. An organization may demonstrate its support for intergenerational contact by authorizing staff members to spend time co-developing program plans or by dedicating funding to an intergenerational coordinator and to programming (Weaver et al., 2019). Services that facilitate ongoing intergenerational programming and annual events, like San Diego County’s Intergenerational Games, demonstrate institutional support for intergenerational contact through a tradition of shared programming. Law or policy can endorse intergenerational contact by specifying that funding for services is intended to reach all age groups, such as Older American Act–funded programs.

At the local level, an organization might adopt a mission statement reflecting a value for intergenerational contact, such as ONEgeneration’s mission to “support and enrich the lives of older adults, children, and families throughout our diverse communities.” Contact is characterized by cooperation rather than competition. Intentional strategies can unite young and older people to work together. The physical environment may be set up to promote intergenerational partnership, such as designating alternating chairs for younger and older adults and providing one set of materials to share between intergenerational partners (Norouzi et al., 2019). Program leaders can use directions and facilitate conversation that supports cooperation.

Participants in intergenerational programs work toward a common goal, although youth and older adults sharing an activity may also be working toward different priorities at the same time. For example, a teen and an older adult conducting a mock job interview might be helping the teen build confidence and speaking skills while the adult develops generativity. Still, they share a common goal of relationship-building and mutual support. Relationships are how intergenerational programs achieve most of their fabulously varied goals, and thus positive intergenerational relationships are a common goal youth and older participants share.

Participants experience equal group status in the contact setting. This tenet warrants some explanation. It would be easy to interpret “equal group status” as an expectation that youth and older adults are treated equally. However, this could result in infantilization of older people or the projection of adult characteristics onto youth, both of which are unfortunately common at intergenerational programs. Rather, equal group status reflects a strengths-based approach, recognizing that each young person and each older adult has something to contribute to and receive from the shared activity (Jarrott et al., 2019). An older adult with dementia can help a child develop their fine motor skills in shared Montessori-based programming (Camp & Lee, 2011), regaining a valued role as teacher. A teen delivering meals to home-bound elders can share their mobility while learning about the importance of civic engagement and improving their driving skills.

A final tenet of contact theory was added by Pettigrew in 1998. Participants should have the opportunity to build friendships through their shared contact. Friendships result from repeated contact, self-disclosure, and the sharing of pleasant activities—things that we have all experienced in our own friendships. Thus, younger and older persons should have repeated opportunities to interact with consistent social partners. Shared activities should elicit the sharing of one’s stories; when younger or older adults are unable to share their stories, whether due to language differences, developmental stage (e.g., babies), or disease conditions, program leaders can share stories on behalf of participants (Jarrott et al., 2019). Finally, programming should be fun. Because not all youth and adults enjoy the same things, program content should be varied, and individuals should be able to choose whether to participate, with an attractive alternative available to those not choosing to join proffered intergenerational activities.

‘Participants should have the opportunity to build friendships through their shared contact.’

Contact theory has proven invaluable to all manner of intergenerational programs because it involves a reasonable number of principles that can be flexibly applied to varied participants, content, and contexts. Researchers have used contact theory to develop additional resources, such as activity guides, planning resources, continuing education courses, and evaluation tools (see also Jarrott, 2006, Jarrott et al., 2019, 2021). Interesting intergenerational research questions remain to be addressed through the application of contact theory. For example, given critics’ concerns that self-selection into intergenerational programs biases outcomes (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006), researchers may want to conduct randomized trials in which individuals are assigned to tasks in single-generation and intergenerational contexts. Also, researchers are curious whether facilitated contact with an outgroup member (in this case, an older adult) whose membership in the outgroup is salient (Hewstone & Brown, 1986) generalizes to contact with an unknown outgroup member in another setting and even to oneself when one joins that outgroup, such as when individuals age into older adulthood (Pettigrew, 1998; Scrivano & Jarrott, 2023).

Call to Action

Exploring intergenerational programs within the massive ecological systems theory and using the tools provided by contact theory, anyone can find a call to action that matches their interests, skills, position, and resources. We can challenge ageist, othering stereotypes that dampen enthusiasm for intergenerational ties; Reframing Aging offers valuable resources for understanding and changing how we communicate about people based on their age. We can locate ourselves within the ecological systems of the older and younger persons who most need positive intergenerational ties and act within our professional roles or personal commitments. We can search out and forge partnerships with counterparts in the same system, as when members of the Pennsylvania Intergenerational Network convene.

Or we can reach across layers to amplify our talents through cross-sector collaboration, as when service providers and local regulators meet to discuss how licensing regulations promote and prohibit intergenerational connections. We can acknowledge the individual differences that create barriers for some to benefit from intergenerational programs and work to eliminate those barriers and celebrate the differences, as the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia does with their Legacy Project, which engages younger and older adults in shared cultural traditions. Our call to action is to map our efforts at every level in the ecological system to ensure all who could benefit from intergenerational ties do so.

One weakness (and a strength) of ecological systems theory is that it is so all-encompassing that it lacks detail on “how-to” support individual development through intergenerational programs. Thus, the call to action also reflects contact theory. Locating our position in the ecological system can help to indicate which contact theory tenets we can realistically support. Most of the tenets relate closely to the work of people in the micro- and meso-systems. These are the program leaders, volunteer supervisors, instructors, and therapeutic specialists who support cooperation, common goals, friendship, and equal group status by recruiting and preparing program stakeholders and implementing shared programming. These are the staff who communicate with stakeholders to learn about interests and concerns and respond to these with clear messaging about intergenerational opportunities.

Organizational, local, and national policymakers positioned in the meso- and exo- systems, such as managers, directors, CEOs, licensing officials, and lawmakers, can best support shared programming by demonstrating commitment for intergenerational ties through mission and value statements, job descriptions, and budgets. Family, other members of individuals’ microsystems, and the younger and older participants also are critical sources of support for intergenerational ties. They need and should seek chances to shape opportunities that match their needs and interests. Each of us has a call to action; wherever we fall in Bronfenbrenner’s group of systems and whichever contact theory tenet aligns with our responsibilities and opportunities, there is room for all of us to advance access to intergenerational programs.

Shannon E. Jarrott, PhD, is a professor in the College of Social Work at The Ohio State University in Columbus. She may be contacted at

Photo credit: fizkes



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