The U.S. population is rapidly aging: 2019 marks the first year in history when there are more people over 60 than under 18. With so many of us living so much longer, what is the meaning of our increasing years? How can a society with more older people than younger ones thrive? How do we find happiness when we know life is long and time is short?
Marc Freedman tackled these questions in his new book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.
One of the nation’s leading experts on the longevity revolution, Freedman dug into the perils of age segregation and talked to social innovators across the globe who are bringing the generations together for mutual benefit.
Marc shared his findings at a recent event sponsored by the Family Philanthropy Resource Center. Here, he shares a few ideas about what we can do to strengthen society and enrich our own lives by connecting across the generations.
Foundation: Many people are used to thinking about generosity in terms of money, but as your book illustrates, there are many ways to give back. Through your work with Encore.org, what are some of the ways you’ve seen people integrate gifts of time, talent, and treasure?
Marc: While I was writing this book, my beloved father died. He was a gym teacher, who for need of money became a school administrator. At age 60, he was pushed into early retirement. Liberated from his desk, he spent the next 20 years organizing track meets for elementary school students. Instead of spending his retirement years playing games, he helped young people to do so. I feel so lucky to have had the benefit of his example.
In my career, I’ve had the good fortune to meet people who find meaning—particularly in midlife and beyond—in so many powerful ways. The sawmill worker in Maine who became a Foster Grandparent, spending time with seriously ill children in hospitals when their parents couldn’t be there. The gardener who raised money from his employers and local businesses to fund college scholarships for low-income Latinos. The retired minister who recruited more than 100 after-school mentors for local students. The journalist who helps high school students with their college applications, entirely online. I could go on and on.
All of them—no exceptions—say that they get so much more from their efforts than they give. There’s a lesson there for the rest of us.
Foundation: Why did you call your book How to Live Forever?
I’m appalled by the Silicon Valley tech titans who are investing millions in plans to radically extend life and even eliminate death entirely. Real happiness and understanding begin not with denying or defeating death.
The only true way to endure is to accept our mortality and with it the wisdom that we are a species designed to live on… just not literally. We do so by passing on, from generation to generation, what we’ve learned from life.
By investing in and connecting with the next generation, not actually trying to be that generation. That’s how we live forever.
Marc: What are the barriers to connecting the generations?
Since the beginning of human history, older people have invested in and supported younger generations. And yet over the past 50 years, we’ve taken something that’s deeply rooted in the human experience and made it close to impossible in our modern world.
The two biggest culprits are a culture that encourages older people to hang on to their youth and a whole set of institutions that keep the generations physically apart. Workplaces, housing and our education system are all increasingly age-segregated.
Foundation: If you had $10 million to solve one of the problems you describe in your book, what would you do with it?
Marc: Funny you should ask. I spend a lot of time on grant proposals, all with the goal of helping to realize the potential of longer lives and intergenerational connections to solve our most pressing social problems. At Encore.org, we’re trying to tell a new story about the possibilities of an older America, create new ways to enable people of all ages to contribute more fully to their communities, and seed a movement built around these ideas. It isn’t easy to fund our work. A mere 1-2 percent of philanthropy goes to anything related to aging, and a tiny fraction of that goes into productive opportunities for engagement across the generations.
So, if I had $10 million for one big idea, I’d launch a national Legacy Corps aimed at engaging older people to transform early childhood education in America. We know how important the early years are. We know that there’s a shrinking pool of child care workers and a growing pool of older adults seeking purpose, income and connection. With enough imagination and support, we should be able to apply the untapped resource of older adults to the unmet needs of underserved children. It’s such a win-win for all of us.
Foundation: What if you only had $1,000?
Marc: If I had $1,000, I’d offer four $250 grants to people of any age with scrappy ideas for battling age segregation and bringing the generations together. Over the past year, we’ve learned that $250 is enough to inspire some really creative activities. Like the retirees and ninth graders in New Jersey who get together to pack meals for vulnerable people around the world. Or the cafeteria worker in Topeka who invites residents of a local senior center to her elementary school for lunch with students once a month. Or the grandpas in White Plains who mentor second and third grade boys struggling to succeed in school. It adds up!