This year, as Millennials edge out Baby Boomers for the distinction of the nation's most populous living adult generation—and as Generation Z edges out its elders as the loneliest generation—consider this: For the first time in history, we have more people over 60 than under 18 in the United States, a shift that will become ever more pronounced.
What will that mean for a nation that prides itself on youth and vigor?
Many pundits foresee a looming disaster, a fight between "kids and canes," a competition for diminishing resources in a society split along generational lines. While not discounting these legitimate fears and concerns, we see encouraging signs that conflict isn't the only path.
As leaders of Encore.org—an innovation hub that sets out to tap the talents of people over 50 as a force for good—we see alliances uniting young and old to help both groups thrive, build stronger communities, and promote social change.
Consider Nuns & Nones, a new group that brings together nuns (average age: 78), and Millennials who describe themselves as "spiritual" but who check "none" when asked to identify their religion. These two groups want to learn from one another and serve others together.
"I had a hunger for more elders in my life," says Brittany Koteles, a 20-something activist with Nuns & Nones. "The sisters have a common narrative of going out into the world for a few years to do social justice work and then coming back to live together in a community. I walked away realizing that these women had models for how I might consider living my life."
The nuns realized they had much to gain as well. "I truly was blown away by the insights that were shared," says Sister Gloria Marie Jones, "listening to these beautiful young people who want to create a better world, who are searching for intentional community, and want to learn from us. It's been a source of incredible hope for me in this moment that has so much darkness. To experience the goodness, the energy, and the desires of these young people is a huge gift and a delight."
If you think this is all just "coffee and conversation with nuns," Koteles says, you're missing something big—and there are bigger things to come. Nuns & Nones, Koteles hints, may soon explore plans "to turn convents into training grounds for the next generation of organizers."
"This isn't about having nice ideas about love," she adds. "We're finding a missing piece of infrastructure that our social movements need. It is the spiritual resilience that can transcend the political turmoil of our times."
Another exciting innovation we've witnessed is the Wisdom Exchange launched last year by BakerRipley, a hundred-year-old community organization in Houston. The project unites older and younger African Americans for storytelling focused on culture, race, and history. Its aim is to build relationships, pride, and identity, while inspiring action.
"Connecting youth with older adults that are cultural reflections of themselves provides an opportunity to explore the paths that have been paved and reveals a vibrant and powerful history of resilience and perseverance," explains Jose Rivera, BakerRipley's assistant director of senior engagement and connection. "Connecting is a step to creating awareness of cultural identity and pride of community and of self."
To learn and create a video story for the Wisdom Exchange, young men of color interviewed four older civil rights leaders in Houston about their lives. The young men developed their journalism skills and an appreciation of their history, while the community leaders shared their own struggles and learnings.
"Always be about something," one of the elders, Bobbi Wooten Morehead, told her interviewer. "If you're about nothing, then you attract nothing, and you will do nothing."*
In a new book published by the Wisdom Exchange, Black Lives Houston: Voices of Our Generations, Marlon A. Smith, senior manager of policy and engagement at BakerRipley and an Encore public voices fellow, wrote that hearing stories from older generations "not only gave me a sense of family and cultural history, but also inspired me and reminded me that I have a responsibility to participate in upholding the ideas of freedom and democracy."
The power of storytelling across the generations is equally evident in Read to Me International, a literacy non-profit in Hawaii that runs Haku Mo'olelo, which means "to compose stories." The program engages older volunteers—mainly retired teachers, artists and authors—to coach women in prison in the art of writing and illustrating children's books, a process that can offer purpose, connection, and healing. Those attributes are all evident in one woman's story of transition from inmate to author.
"Three years ago," Lois Kim told us, "my drug addiction caused me to abandon my family, lose everything, and eventually be incarcerated." Today, she's out of prison, clean and sober, self-sufficient, and a published author—all of which she credits to Haku Mo'olelo.
"The program bridges the gap between three generations," Kim explains—older volunteers, incarcerated parents, and youth. Meeting the volunteers, she says, was "the moment my heart began to heal. They referred to us by name. They treated us like family. They also brought bins upon bins of high-quality art supplies, which gave us immense pride in our artwork. Through their actions, I felt human again. I mattered. I became hopeful."
Through her 2017 book, Mommy Loves You, Kim began to repair her relationship with her daughter. Now she's using the story to help others rebuild their lives.
In a world with more older people than younger ones, Haku Mo'olelo, the Wisdom Exchange, and Nuns & Nones illustrate the potential of intergenerational cooperation, innovation, and activism. They make us hopeful. They show us that a more-old-than-young-society can be a source of connection, not conflict.
And they uncover a source of strength hidden in plain sight. We already have everyone we need to create a world where young people are surrounded by a web of support anchored by older generations, where loneliness recedes, purpose surges, and the generations work together for change.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
*Update—April 8th, 2019: This post has been updated with the proper attribution of a quote to Bobbi Wooten Morehead.
See more in this series:
How Generation Z, as the Multicultural Vanguard, Can Safeguard the Future of America
If older Americans can learn from the more enlightened racial attitudes among Generation Z, then the country can look forward to a bright future. Read more
Why Generation Z Is Embracing Feminism
Younger feminists demonstrate a fresh confidence in the power of activism, particularly via social media. Read more
'Stagnancy is Scarier Than Change': What I Learned From My Road Trip in Search of Gen Z
There's a stubborn optimism among my generation. We care deeply, and we're ready to be listened to. Read more
The Future Is Non-Binary, and Teens Are Leading the Way
Teenage girls are challenging the meaning and the traditional constraints of gender in ways I couldn't have imagined—but many boys are still trying to fit into a gender structure that has historically benefited them. Read more