“As we get older,” Marc Freedman said, “we want to be part of something larger than ourselves.”
To harness this yearning, he and hundreds of fellow boomers gathered earlier this year in a San Francisco convention hotel a few miles from the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where the Summer of Love helped ignite the ‘60s counterculture half a century ago. They were plotting a different social revolution for a different time.
When they were young, boomers defied their elders on everything from civil rights, gender equality, gay liberation and Vietnam to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Now, as they become elders themselves, some are feeling tugged again toward activism.
Freedman’s national nonprofit group, Encore.org, which held the conference, promotes “second acts for the greater good.” Next month it will launch Generation to Generation, a program that wants to mobilize a tsunami of older Americans to work in youth-serving organizations as volunteers, part-time staffers or stipend recipients.
Freedman and others believe that the demographic moment is ripe for such intergenerational activism. As any self-respecting boomer will tell you, there’s never before been so many older adults with so much gas left in their tanks. At the same time, a growing number of children and youth are living in poverty. Rates of childhood poverty in the United States now exceed rates of elder poverty by a sizable margin and are among the highest of any of the world’s economically advanced nations.
Setting the Stage
Cross-generational volunteering is not a new concept. It draws its inspiration from the late John W. Gardner, a civic activist who exhorted fellow citizens to find “breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.” Two decades ago, in his early 80s, he and Freedman helped launch what is now AARP Experience Corps, a program that engages older adults as tutors for at-risk public school students. Today it is just one among scores of intergenerational initiatives across the country.
An organization with a similar mission, Jumpstart for Children, started in 1993 as a program that paid college students a small stipend to work as teacher’s aides in preschools in disadvantaged communities. But in recent years it has been recruiting older adults. “Because they’re more mature, they know how to foster a confidence in the children and a feeling of being cared for,” said Ray Ramirez, director of early-childhood education at Proyecto Pastoral, which uses Jumpstart volunteers in its Los Angeles preschool programs.
The granddaddy of such initiatives, Foster Grandparents, was created a half century ago as part of the U.S. government’s Senior Corps program. Research has shown that its benefits flow not just to at-risk children but to the older volunteers who work with them in schools, hospitals, juvenile correction facilities and day care centers.
“When you see kids running to greet their older volunteers, and when you see the faces of the older adults light up, you understand how much the generations can do for each other,” said Lester Strong, a former AARP Foundation vice president and CEO of Experience Corps, who attended the Encore conference.
Of course, programs like these cannot by themselves solve the next generation’s upward-mobility challenges. “The scale is too vast, but we are at a promising demographic moment if we can marry the energy of older adults with the energy of the young,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, who accepted an award at the Encore conference for her nonprofit’s work.