Can Intergenerational Activism Unite Us?

Encore.org recently published an essay by Paul Taylor titled, “Intergenerational Activism: In a Divided America, a Tonic for All Ages.” This post is excerpted from the longer essay, which you can find here.

Aging and racial diversity – the two great 21st century demographic dramas at the root of much of our political disunity – can also become sources of national renewal. In fact, most Americans believe they eventually will.

Needless to say, right now we’re on a bumpy ride to that long run. Sweeping demographic change has sorted Americans into two angry political tribes. One skews younger, more liberal, more diverse, more urban, more cosmopolitan, more secular, more immigrant-friendly; the other older, whiter, more conservative, more nationalistic, more religious, and more likely to live in small towns and rural communities.

One controls the culture, the other controls the government, which give both endless fodder for grievance. Each has its own news channels and social media universe, which give them wildly different takes on reality. Each is animated, above all, by animus toward the other.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the first presidential campaign in modern times waged mainly on this perilous terrain of identity politics. But the trouble didn’t start with him. For decades, our changing demographics have exerted a centrifugal pull on our political identities. Trump is both symptom and accelerant. So is today’s shout-fest on social media, talk radio and cable news. So is the paralyzing dysfunction in Congress.  

But here’s an interesting paradox: Even as Americans have become more politically divided, surveys show we’ve also become more comfortable with diversity – by race, gender, religion, immigrant status, family structure, sexual identity and just about every other demographic marker you can name.  

Take immigration. According to the latest Pew Research survey, 65 percent of Americans say immigrants strengthen the country, while just 26 percent say they are a burden to the country. A quarter century ago, public opinion had been reversed: 63 percent said burden, 31 percent strengthen.

The sea change in attitudes came about in an era when nearly nine in 10 new immigrants have been people of color. It’s been driven mostly by the attitudes of younger adults, who are champions of diversity. But it has occurred among all generations.  

Our politics aren’t going to be detoxified overnight. But one way to bind together other realms of society is through intergenerational social activism, a movement that is gathering momentum at a time when more older adults are doing well economically, while more children and youth are at risk of downward mobility.

Encore.org, an innovation hub “tapping the 50+ population as a force for good,” recently launched Generation-to-Generation, a campaign to mobilize 1 million adults ages 50 and older to participate in youth-serving programs as tutors, mentors, staff members, foster grandparents and more.

Last year I did a survey for Encore.org that found that two-thirds of Americans — across lines of age, race, ideology and partisanship — say that the growing diversity of our population will be a source of national strength, as long as Americans keep in mind the obligations that old and young have for one another and for future generations.

That finding is best understood as describing an aspiration. But it’s the right aspiration for a changing America. Research shows that intergenerational programs are good for both children and for adults. Who knows, maybe they can be an antidote to the raging disunity of our times. Americans would like that very much.

Paul Taylor, a senior fellow at Encore.org, is the author of The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown. He is the former executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and a former Washington Post politics reporter.