How the Intergenerational Gap Between Youth and Senior Citizens Impacts Society

Olivia Cederquist

Barron Collier High School

How the Intergenerational Gap Between Youth and Senior Citizens Impacts Society

Olivia Cederquist

Barron Collier High School

          All old people drive slowly. Every teenager is addicted to their phone. Teenagers these days cannot carry a real conversation. Old people do not know how technology works. A teenager cannot wear clothes if they do not have some sort of rip in them. These are just a few of many examples of common beliefs and misconceptions that members of different generations have of each other. A society is composed of multiple generations living together in a community. A generation can be classified by many different factors, especially age. The senior generation is most often defined as being older than sixty-five years old. A member of a society that would be considered an adolescent is someone who is shifting from childhood to adulthood, otherwise known as a teenager, and is classified by the age-range ten to nineteen years old. There is a major difference between a thirteen year old and a sixty-five year old, the most obvious being a five decade gap separating these generations by age. The term “intergenerational gap” can be used to explain the limited mindset that creates emotional and mental distance between generations. Age is not the only element that creates an intergenerational gap between youth and senior citizens. Socioeconomic differences, stigmas associated with a generation, traditions, and cultures are all categories that help aid in creating a generational gap. This division of mindset in our society can have negative effects. The impacts of the intergenerational gap in American culture is something that is often overlooked. All generations would benefit by bridging the intergenerational gap between youth and senior citizens because each generation has unique experiences and perspectives that bond the members of society and makes our community stronger.

          Throughout history the eldest members in a society were considered wise and respected. The younger children and adults would look up to the elders in the community for advice and care because they had the most experience and knowledge. History has shifted tremendously and the idea of the older members being the most insightful has changed as fewer youth are looking to their elders for guidance. With the increased advancements in technology, many younger people would rather ask Google for the answers than ask their grandparents.

          The American family unit is very different when compared to other cultures. There are two primary family models that cultures can be categorized into. A nuclear family model includes just the parents and their children. An extended family model is encompassed by all members of the family including: parents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, and grandparents. According to Marcia Carteret, a healthcare communications specialist, “The American culture, along with other European cultures, tend to stick to the nuclear family model. In contrast, the Hispanic, Native American, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern cultures stick to the extended family unit”(Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., 2010).  In an extended family model, there are more people involved in decision-making. Another difference between the two models is the number of people living near or under the same roof. Cultures that practice the nuclear family model for example, often have less people living in the same house which leads to less interaction among the generations.

          The concept of the household in American society is one aspect that widens the intergenerational gap. Marcia Carteret states,

It is very common for families in collectivist cultures to establish multi-generational households. This is less true when a family becomes acculturated in the United States or other western countries where privacy is more highly valued and in cases where socio-economic gains create opportunities for greater independence (Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., 2010).

A multigenerational household is one where the grandparents are not separate from their children and grandchildren. “In most multi-generational households, there are at least three generations living together” (Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., 2010). In the traditional Hispanic culture the grandparents from both sides of the family help support the mother with domestic chores, such as taking care of the children and cooking. Due to this, it is very common for the grandparents to live in the same house as their adult children and their kids. In many cultures, including the Native American culture, it is very common for a grandparent to take care of a child because the mother and the father are working. As people migrate to new areas with different cultures it is very easy for the family culture to change in order to fit in with the new culture. Carteret gives the example, “A father may lose his traditional role as the head of the family if his wife begins to work outside the home, earning income and greater independence” (Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., 2010). Along with traditional role changes, when a family moves to a new area it is very common for them to learn the language the people around them speak. Often times the children will be taught the native language in school and this can create a barrier in the relationship with the grandparents who do not speak the language. The American family unit is often changing and unique when compared to other cultures. Carteret explains, “One can expect that families from more traditional cultures not acculturated in U.S. ways will tend to value family and display family structures that are quite different from the middle-class European American family model” (Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., 2010). With societal changes such as increased educational, vocational, and mobility opportunities the multi-generational family structure is becoming less common in current times as people become less dependent on help from extended family members, such as grandparents.

          America is a nation that is always changing and with time there has been a demographic shift. Gerontology is “the scientific study of old age, the process of aging, and the particular problems of old people” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The term “graying of the United States” is used to describe the population trend of the United States becoming more populated with older members. “The median age of Americans is going up. Therefore, the population of America as a country is getting older” (Michael Ugulini). “The number of Americans ages sixty-five and older is projected to more than double from forty-six million today to over ninety-eight million by 2060, and the sixty-five-and-older age group's share of the total population will rise to nearly twenty-four percent from fifteen percent” ( Mark Mather, 2016 ). There are many reasons for the increase population of senior citizens in America. There has been tremendous technological and medical advancements that have enabled people to live longer than people from past decades. Currently heart disease is the leading cause of death for women and men according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, there have been many medical advancements which have lowered the number of deaths. “Since 1950, age-adjusted death rates from cardiovascular disease (CVD) have declined sixty percent, representing one of the most important public health achievements of the twentieth century” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).  Another trend which has affected current demographics is the decrease in birth rates as couples are choosing to have fewer children. “In 2018 about 3.8 million babies were born in the U.S., which is two percent lower than the number born in 2016, and the lowest recorded number of births in thirty years, according to a report done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention” (Rachael Rettner, Senior Writer, 2018). The dramatic increase of the older population in America along with the decreasing birth rate is setting up a new demographic of more elderly adults compared to young people.

          The change in demographics in the United States has economic consequences. As people live longer lives they will need more resources to live. “In 1950, there were more Americans under twenty-five than over forty-five. By 2050, the share of seniors will nearly treble while the country's portion of twentysomethings will decline” (Derek Thompson, 2012). Due to the fact that the life expectancy has increased, people are working until a much older age than compared to the past. However, when the older members of the workforce retire the number of people currently working will decrease. Workforces which employ multiple generations are becoming a commonality in present times. Cooperation and getting along with co-workers is a fundamental part of a successful work environment. Members from each generation need to learn how to effectively communicate and understand one another. Successfully bridging the intergenerational age gap is crucial with the changing demographics of the workplace.

          One of the components that separates the generations is the perceived differences in physical appearance. People worldwide are guilty of judging someone or something based on appearance. A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Stereotypes are often formed based on someone’s race, socio-economic status, gender, and age. As with most generalizations, age stereotyping is often built on physical appearance. People with less hair, people with gray or white hair, wrinkled or unsmooth skin, or people with frail bones that prevent them from moving easily are all physical traits people associate with aging. Often times when someone sees an older person fitting the senior-like characteristics they automatically categorize them.  Ageism, is a word that is used to describe “the discrimination and prejudice of a person based on their age” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). According to a journal about Biodiversity and Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism, people tend to stereotype older people into multiple different sub-categories.

The subgroups and the traits that go along with each are: Despondent-people who show traits of neglect, sadness, fear, and loneliness, Severely Impaired- people who are feeble, slow thinking, and senile, Shrew/Curmudgeon- elders who are ill-tempered, complain often, prejudiced, stubborn, and nosy, Recluse- senior citizens that are quiet, timid, live in the past, and set in their ways, John Wayne Conservative- people who are proud, patriotic, wealthy, conservative, and religious, Perfect Grandparent- an older citizen who is generous, family oriented, and wise, and lastly the Golden Ager subgroup- people who are intelligent, productive, healthy, and independent (Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism, p. 177).

People use categories and stereotyping to try to understand a person who they may not even know, and oftentimes the oversimplification of a person can have negative effects. The generalizations each generation has towards one another is a large reason why there is misunderstanding and disconnect between the groups.

          Besides stereotyping, ageism also sparks emotional responses in younger people. Susan Fiske and her colleagues (2002) found “that pity was the most common emotion felt about the elderly; indeed, few groups prompt as much pity as the elderly. Pity is a typical response to people who, through no fault of their own, face difficult or diminished life circumstances” (Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism, p. 180-181). Often times when a younger person sees an older person they may become anxious because, to many, the idea of growing old is frightening.

Researchers have found that anxiety is a common response to older people among the young, and the main reasons seem to be that old people remind us what may, or likely will, happen to all of us eventually (Greenberg, Schimel, & Martens, 2002). The elderly remind us that youth and beauty will fade; that illness and disability, along with the social isolation they can cause, are likely; and that death is a certainty for everyone (Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism, p. 180-181).

Growing old is often associated with death, and death is an inevitable part of the human life cycle, which people fear because no one has the knowledge of life after death. Therefore, many young people dislike senior citizens because it raises anxiety levels, and ideas of the unknown.

Researchers measured contact with, anxiety about, and behavior toward the elderly in a sample of students (Bousfield & Hutchison, 2010). They found that the more anxiety participants had, the less contact they had with older people. In addition, anxiety about older people predicted attitudes and behavior: Participants who reported more anxiety also attributed more negative characteristics to older people and reported less willingness to help the elderly (Understanding Age Stereotypes and Ageism, p.180-181).

Stereotyping of senior citizens allows younger people to have negative feeling towards elders, which is one of the reasons for the wide disconnect between the young and the old.

          Adolescents are not the only ones making and reinforcing stereotypes. There are multiple misconceived ideas that senior citizens have against teenagers. Technology is continuing to advance every year as new phones, computers, security systems, and much more are becoming more advanced.  A large majority of the current senior citizen population did not live with the comfort of technology that many teenagers have today. Therefore, many older citizens make judgments about younger people specific to how they act with technology. Some older citizens believe that children should spend less time on their phones because they are not experiencing the world for how it truly is, or how it was when they were a child. Phone addiction is a very relevant topic as many people have come to the conclusion that they are addicted and feel as if they cannot live without their phone. According to a study conducted in 2015, “teenagers spend six and half hours every day on screen media” (Quentin Fottrell, 2018). It is hard to understand the importance of an object that has so much dominance, such as a smartphone, if you were not born in a time when they were so ubiquitous. Thus, many older people have judgments regarding teenagers and how they depend upon technology and the ease with which they share information online.

          The combination of misunderstanding and stereotypes leads to the separation between these two generations. Separation is defined as “the action or state of moving or being moved apart” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). There are many negative effects associated with social, emotional, and physical separation, one of which being loneliness. The definition of loneliness is “sadness because one has no friends or company” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Loneliness is often overlooked because the symptoms can be complicated and hard to unearth. However, according to a recent study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco

More than forty percent of seniors experience loneliness on a regular basis, and the study also found that people sixty years and older who reported feeling lonely faced a forty-five percent increased risk of mortality. Research also shows that a lack of social connection and the feeling of loneliness and isolation is as damaging to one’s health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Loneliness is also a risk factor for cognitive decline, the potential progression of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, obesity, and depression. It’s even a factor for something as simple as the common cold. A recent study in Health Psychology showed people who were lonely complained of thirty-eight and a half percent more severe symptoms than those who were less lonely (Sachin H. Jain, 2017).

Loneliness can not only cause poor health, it also has economic impacts. “One AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) study showed those who are very socially isolated influence about one-hundred-thirty dollars per month more in Medicare spending than their non- or less-isolated counterparts” (Sachin H. Jain, 2017). Loneliness is a symptom of depression that is prevalent for senior citizens because with age can come more sadness and trauma. The older a person gets the more likely they are to experience more death of loved ones, such as the death of a spouse or parent. “Loneliness and social isolation are major predictors of seniors utilizing home care, as well as entering nursing homes, according to a report from the Children’s, Women’s and Seniors Health Branch, British Columbia Ministry of Health” (Sarah Stevenson, 2017). “According to a recent AARP study, twenty-eight percent of people seventy-five and older in the state of Florida live alone. Floridians are particularly at risk of isolation because many moved here from elsewhere and may not have family or other companions nearby” (Michelle Cerulli McAdams, 2018). Depression is another harmful effect of isolation. Depression is defined as “feelings of severe despondency and dejection” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). As reported by WebMD, “Late-life depression affects about six million Americans ages sixty-five and older but only ten percent receive treatment for depression. Depression also increases the risk of suicide, especially in elderly white men. The suicide rate in people ages eighty to eighty-four is more than twice that of the general population” (WebMD Depression in Elderly, p. 1). “In the elderly, depression often occurs with other medical illnesses and disabilities and lasts longer” compared to other age groups (WebMD Depression in Elderly, p. 1). In addition, “Depression in the elderly is associated with an increased risk of cardiac diseases and an increased risk of death from illness (WebMD Depression in Elderly, p. 1). The negative effects of social, emotional, and physical isolation in elderly people is extensive, however, senior citizens are not the only age group that suffers from loneliness and depression.

          Many teenagers suffer from depression and/or societal isolation. “Recent studies have noted a significant uptick in depression and suicidal thoughts over the past several years for teens, especially those who spend multiple hours a day using screens, and especially girls” (Leah Shafer, 2017).  Social media can have a large impact on teenagers in a negative way. With social media, personal information is constantly being shared and people are physically judged, by people who may be complete strangers, for example by “liking” a photo. Teenagers tend to validate themselves based on the numbers of “friends”, “followers”, or “likes” they may receive. When a person feels validated based off of a screen there are many problems that arise. “One study found that forty-eight percent of teens who spend five hours per day on an electronic device have at least one suicide risk factor, compared to thirty-three percent of teens who spend two hours a day on an electronic device” (Leah Shafer, 2017). Teenagers may be more likely to be depressed because with the increase use of social media some teenagers feel they have to live up to an unrealistic standard of appearance. Body image is something that most teenagers are insecure and anxious about. With the increase use of platforms such as Instagram, teenagers can follow and see thousands of pictures of models, and many teenagers get depressed over the fact that their body does not look like the popular model on their screen.  Teenagers can feel isolated from the world of reality because they are spending numerous hours on a screen, communicating with someone who they may not even speak with in “real life.” Teenagers are suffering from anxiety, depression, and loneliness similarly to the way senior citizens are suffering from these mental illnesses. Even though the causes for the depression and the overall side-effects may be different, youth and senior citizens are not as contrasting as one may believe. Senior citizens and teenagers alike, share the universal need for true human connection.

          A concerted effort to bring youth and senior citizens together can lower depression and loneliness rates. By encouraging interaction between the young and the old it allows both members to gain a sense of purpose because the interaction can turn into a strong relationship. People may feel less depressed and lonely if they had more friends and relationships with people they would typically not interact with. By developing a relationship, members from the different age groups can learn so much about one another. History has a way of repeating itself, and talking to someone from a different generation opens up a pathway of knowledge. Sometimes, when a person dies, important stories and lessons pass away with them because there is no one to pass the stories on to. With more interactions between the youth and the seniors, less history and stories would be lost because there would be another person to share the history with. Older members can learn about the new technology that they never had growing up, and the youth can learn about a time when technology did not control almost everything. A teenager can also teach technology tips and tricks to an older person. If an older person knows how to use technology better they can figure out ways to contact and connect with family members that may live far away. Allowing people to have interaction with loved ones would help decrease the isolation older people often face. By sharing knowledge and helping one another, the different generations may realize that even though they may have grown up in two different decades they actually have many elements of their life in common.

          For decades society has favored the idea of staying young forever, an event that is humanly impossible. Consumer marketing, music, movies, magazines, and television continuously reinforce the message that American society prides itself on youth and beauty, and that aging is negative. The constant media influence on the youth can lead to an irrational fear of aging. However, relationships and interactions with elders can help alleviate these fears of growing old. The idea of becoming older may not seem as frightening, and the youth may be more excited for what their future holds, if they can understand that growing older can bring on exciting life experience, and new knowledge. A young, lively spirit would help the older person feel invigorated and young again. Teenagers that fear growing old would eventually want someone in their future years to help them stay energized and young as well. Depression rates and isolation in elderly people will go down, which improves their health because they are having more human interaction.  Grandparents play an important role in a child’s life, but if a grandparent passes away it can be hard for an adolescent to fill that missing void. For a teen, having a relationship with a senior may give them the opportunity to fill the grandparent role.

          A study done in 2008, published in Educational Gerontology specifically studied the “Effects of Intergenerational Interaction on Aging.” In this study, mildly depressed elderly people, with an average age of seventy-five, were enrolled to do an exercise program with either students who were the average age of nineteen, and who were studying exercise science, or a professional exercise specialist. After the study was conducted, both groups had an improvement with depression, however, the group working with the students had a greater improvement. According to the researchers, the greater improvement was due to the fact that the elderly subjects felt useful as they felt their participation in this program was aiding the students’ studies. Researchers also found that the involved students decreased their stereotyped attitudes when working with the older people over the course of the study as well (Carmen Requena Hernandez and Marta Zubiaur Gonzalez, 2008). This study effectively demonstrated that members of both generations experienced measurable benefits when they worked together.

          Physical and musical activities can help an older person feel more energetic, however, not much can beat the interaction between two human beings sharing important life stories and memories. The interaction between youths and senior citizens will help close the intergenerational gap, weaken stereotypes, and overall benefit both the elders and the adolescents physically and mentally. The exceptional benefits of youth and senior interactions has inspired programs that specialize in bringing the generations together. One program in particular is called Visiting Teens, which is a program I started in my home town in southern Florida. Southern Florida has a large demographic of senior citizens because of the warm, tropical climate. Many senior citizens come to Florida to retire from their careers. Retirement can lead seniors to potentially move away from other family members, which can lead to isolation. Throughout my town, there are numerous nursing and senior living facilities. When I was in elementary school, my school choir would sing to the residents at some of these homes, and even at a young age I could tell the joy our presence would bring to the seniors. When I was a freshman in high school, and I was signing up for clubs I realized there seemed to be a club for almost everything, and every group. However, one club I could not find anywhere in my community was one that allowed for the interaction between teenagers and seniors. The lack of awareness and effort on an issue that was so large where I lived inspired me to create Visiting Teens. Visiting Teens’ mission is to bridge the intergenerational gap between youth and senior citizens by facilitating visits and creating real relationships between high school students and senior members of the community.

          Starting any organization has its challenges. When I first began Visiting Teens I was calling every nursing home in my community, and speaking with different managers and activity directors in order to explain what Visiting Teens was, and the goals we wished to accomplish. There were challenges on the way to finding a senior home that would allow teenagers to come into a facility and spend time with the residents. One challenge included needing adult chaperones to accompany students on trips outside of school. After at least thirty phone calls, a nursing home near my school set up a meeting with me. The director of the nursing home allowed me and a small group to visit with any seniors who volunteered themselves. One woman reached out to me and expressed her need for technology help. The woman, who I will call Ms. Betty for her privacy, was writing an autobiography for her family. Ms. Betty needed help organizing and saving her documents on her computer, a skill that came easy to me. I was able to help Ms. Betty with her computer, and while doing so, I got the chance to learn about her family history. She told me all about her amazing travels to Asia, and many of her experiences over her lifetime.  In addition to learning about her travels and stories, Ms. Betty was very curious about my life. I shared with her about my school life, my family, my travels, and my goals.   During my visits with Ms. Betty, I felt like I was spending time with a friend my own age. We found many things we both had in common to bond over, such as our shared interest in travel, and we both had so much different knowledge to share as well.  In between our visits, we continued to communicate with one another. She emailed me one afternoon explaining how she had almost finished her family autobiography, and that she could not have done it without my help. Ms. Betty wrote, “You make my heart jump for joy. I am thrilled at the prospect of having you for a friend and meeting with you often. Thank you for helping me with the computer. More importantly, thank you for giving my life purpose with your enthusiastic input. The generation gap has already been overcome.”  Within a few visits, Ms. Betty and I developed a relationship that was different from others either of us had experienced before.

          Another amazing experience was facilitating the visits of another classmate who meets on a regular basis with Mrs. D., a woman who is one hundred and one years old. Mrs. D. shared that she really looks forward to her weekly visits with her Visiting Teen.  Every week the teen reads the newspaper to Mrs. D. because she has very poor eyesight.  When the two visit each other, they read and discuss current events and share life stories. Mrs. D. is an amazing woman who has lived through an entire century, and has experienced life in the Great Depression, World War II, and other major events of the twentieth century. Throughout the visits, the Visiting Teen learned that “happiness and beauty actually grows as the years go by.” Other teenagers are sharing the interest of creating relationships with the seniors in our community, and our current local chapter of Visiting Teens has over fifty members.

          The intergenerational age gap is real. Facilitating pleasant interactions among teenagers and senior citizens is an action oriented approach that should be highly encouraged due to the many outstanding benefits that will be realized in our society.

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© 2019 by Olivia Cederquist