Mixing Matters, a new report by the charity United for All Ages, has called for the promotion of ‘shared sites’ that can facilitate contact between older and younger people. These include nurseries sharing a space with care homes, sheltered housing developments letting flats for students in return for volunteering, and schools hosting day centres for older people with conditions such as depression and dementia. The aim of these proposals is to tackle the increasing segregation between the generations in today’s society – what the charity has previously termed‘age apartheid’ – and to allow young people to benefit from the concern and experience of the elderly, while tackling the loneliness and isolation experienced by many older people.
This is a really nice idea, and, on a practical level, proposals for shared spaces, particularly between the very young and very old, have a lot going for them. There is something depressingly wrong about communities that keep elderly people sequestered in retirement homes on one part of town and young children locked away in nurseries on the other. It is true, as United for All Ages points out, that ‘many of the places where people traditionally mixed have changed or disappeared in recent decades’ – from ‘pubs, clubs and local shops to places of worship and the workplace’. And the charity is also right to state that a lack of connection between the generations ‘fosters mistrust, suspicion and misunderstanding’. ‘We all lose out through the ageism and exclusion that result’, it says.
But can shared spaces solve the problem? While some of the creative initiatives discussed in this report could be very good for the old and young people engaged in them, there is a whiff of social engineering that should give us pause. The deeper problem is that a cultural ‘mistrust, suspicion and misunderstanding’ means that relations between older and younger people are increasingly formalised, throwing up barriers even in the mixed spaces that do exist. Interactions that were once spontaneous – old ladies telling kids off for mucking about in the street, middle-aged blokes coaching the local football team on a Saturday – have become more distant, problematic and tense.
There are various reasons for this. An uptight, risk-averse parenting culture, which means children are kept under close supervision by their parents and teachers at all times; a regulatory climate in which adults are discouraged from interacting with children unless they have been formally vetted and approved; a defensiveness among older people about how their concern for children might be interpreted… All of it leads to a climate in which young and old people feel rather unsure about each other, and this is unlikely to be solved by simply pushing them together.
Generational interaction at a community level works best when it is informal, backed up by social convention. Traditional assumptions that older people should look out for younger people, that children should respect their elders, and that young adults should learn from the wisdom and experience of senior companions, once provided a backdrop against which relations between the generations could be constructive – despite inevitable tensions. Young people have long chafed against the slow pomposity of the old guys, and pensioners have long decried the bad behaviour and manners of kids today. But living through these tensions helped the generations to know each other; to rub off each other’s sharp corners and work out ways of coexisting.
We still see this today, of course, in the moments where people are able to come together and be themselves. But this interaction is not taken for granted as a part of community life: as evidenced by the fact that organisations like United for All Ages get so excited when they see it, and come up with proposals to develop more of it. The trouble is that the promise of intergenerational spaces can quickly be thwarted by the anxieties that have fuelled generational distancing in the first place.