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The Intergenerational Imperative: A New Narrative

We must end the conversations pitting generation against generation. It’s ageist and supports generational stereotypes that don’t value the best that young and older people have to offer – especially to each other. It’s time for a new narrative that highlights the importance of the unprecedented shifts every generation is experiencing, one that reflects the commonalities as opposed to differences.

We’ve added more than three decades to our lives since 1900. But contrary to the way many people think about those years, they are not simply tacked onto to the end life. These extra years are an expansion of every stage of life. We see it when young people take a gap year before starting college or are waiting until later in life to leave home, marry and start their own families. Midlife is expanding, as people work longer, return to school, and create new careers. And certainly old age is longer as well, as the number of Americans living into their nineties is expected to quadruple by 2050.

Work

Daily headlines perpetuate a myth of generational angst between Boomers and Millennials in the workplace, when the reality is they have much more in common than simply coping with a stretched out life map. Younger generations believe that they alone seek purpose and meaning in their work. The Workplace Purpose indicates that more than 25% do; but that number is 39% for 55-64 year olds and rises 47% after 65.

The baby boomer generation says they’ve felt the need to compete since they started working – there were so many people entering the job market at the same time, and over a long period. Younger generations say they aren’t sure how to compete; or as one person recently told me, “When you get participation trophies for everything, you have no idea what you are good — or bad — at. It can be paralyzing.”

Debt Load

Student loan debt has topped $1.4 trillion. Research by Citizens Bank found that 60% of those under 35 will be paying off these debts far into their 40s, with the rest of the burden falling to boomer parents. Boomers are paying off loans at the risk of their own retirement savings. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York research shows that 2.8 million borrowers are over 60.

Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping by and Get Your Financial Life Together, says,”Millennials get a lot of the press when it comes to the student loan crisis and how it will affect our futures, but there are boomers who are of retirement age and still dealing with student loans, many of which were probably taken out for a millennial child. Concerns about paying off debt and being able to retire comfortably transcends generational divides.”

Homeownership — And Finding Roommates

Last year, home ownership rates fell to an historic low – partly because millennials can’t buy or don’t value homeownership in the same way as previous generations; boomers value their homes as a significant retirement asset, as 50% have less than $100,000 saved. Reverse mortgage products have become more attractive as boomers can’t sell to younger buyers.

The growing interest among boomers to rent rather than own shouldn’t be discounted in low rates of ownership. A 2015 study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard found that people 45 – 64 accounted for twice the share of rental growth as those under 35. In major cities, boomers are dominating the rental market, making it even harder for younger people to find affordable housing. People of all ages are turning to new sites like Silvernest and SpareRoom, which help connect homeowners with roommates.

Multigenerational Living

In 2014, a record 60.6 million people, or 19% of the U.S. population, lived with multiple generations under one roof, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data. Young adults have replaced older people as the second adult generation in the household. Among people 25 – 29, 31% are residents of multigenerational households. Nearly half of all multigenerational households are comprised of grandparents, parents and grandchildren. This is one reason why the rate of older Americans living alone has dropped since 1990.

Caregiving

The average age of a family caregiver is now 49.2 years old and trending younger. Forty-eight percent of caregivers are 18 – 49 years old. With more generations under the same roof, caregiving is becoming a family affair. Seven percent of grandchildren are taking of their grandparents.

Still, there is a looming crisis of care. In 2010, the ratio of caregivers to people needing care was 7:1; in 2030, it will be 4:1. The 80+ population will increase by 44% between 2030 and 2040; the number of caregivers available will only increase by 10%. The situation completely bottoms out in the 2040s as the boomers are in old, old age. For the next 25 years we will need to attract young people to the field of aging services in huge numbers. Right now, these types of jobs aren’t even on their radar.

The generational interdependencies are clear. The issues are magnified because of the size of the boomer and millennial generations, but the issues of today will surely be repeated as the millennials begin to age, many past the age of 100 — the gift of new longevity.

Q & A with Lori Bitter now live at seniorhousingnet.com


Baby boomers are changing the definition of aging in America. Lori Bitter, a consultant who specializes in engaging with mature consumers at The Business of Aging, delves into the changes in American households and their broader social effect in her new book, “The Grandparent Economy.” She answered some questions for SeniorHousingNet.com on grandparenting, the golden years and deciding where to live. Learn More →