For those who offer funding and those who seek it, a new paper commissioned by Encore.org and written by business journalist Sarah Murray makes the case for intergenerational solutions.

In this blog post, Sarah explains what she uncovered in her research.

A stylized illustration of four enormous balloons carrying 4 white houses over a hilly landscape in front of a blue sky

As a journalist covering sustainable development, I’m always looking for stories to tell about different parts of society — business, philanthropy or government — coming together to solve big global problems. So when Encore.org asked me to write the paper that publishes today — The Power of Connecting the Generations — I was intrigued.

What, I wondered, could be achieved when bringing together people of different ages? A lot, it turns out.

But first, we’ll need to break down the barriers erected between the generations. It started in the nineteenth century. Well-intentioned efforts—removing children and destitute adults from poorhouses and preventing child labor—evolved into age-segmented institutions such as the orphanage, the elder care industry and the high school.

It’s tricky writing about this stuff. After all, altruistic motives were behind these developments. But the unintended consequence was diminished opportunities for interaction between adolescents and adults. Essentially, western society sleepwalked into age segmentation.

Economic and organizational silos don’t help either. As social entrepreneurs and foundation leaders pointed out, silos make it very hard to secure funding for intergenerational initiatives.

I asked dozens of sources at nonprofits and foundations what we could achieve if we break down some of these barriers. I love some of the answers.

When you bring together older and younger people (whether socially or in residential settings), they can solve each other’s problems — older people find purpose and companionship in instructing or entertaining children, whose development accelerates as a result.

As a classical music lover, my favorite example is Judson Manor, a home for educated retirees in Cleveland, Ohio. In return for regular performances, graduate music students live there for free. Their art enriches life for everyone at the residence and, based on a shared love of music, firm friendships form between students and retirees.

There’s also the innovation factor. Plenty of people now point to diversity as a necessary ingredient in our search for new solutions to old problems—and age diversity is no exception.

But there’s one further advantage to bringing together the generations: Given the increasing diversity of younger generations, age diversity bridges divides that go beyond age — something urgently needed as we work to rebuild a politically, racially and economically segmented society.

So what can funders—particularly philanthropic foundations—do to help break down the cultural and institutions barriers between generations? A number of ideas emerged from my research. Here are a few:

  • Funders could use age diversity, like income equality and racial diversity, as a lens through which to design and evaluate all programs and strategies.
  • Funders could create an intergenerational pillar to support initiatives and nonprofits that are bringing together different age groups in their models for social change.
  • Funders could consider more flexible grantmaking to support cross-generational initiatives that don’t fit into traditional funding boxes.

What seems clear is that we’re at the very beginning of uncovering the rich rewards of age diversity. Not that social entrepreneurs and funders haven’t been developing innovative programs and funding models. Far from it—and I include some of their stories in the paper. But moving away from the institutional status quo needs courage and political will.

It won’t be easy. But for me, the real promise lies in a whole new approach to problem solving. In a world whose challenges can seem overwhelming complex, solutions will only be found if we look across communities, geographies, sectors — and generations.

With more generations alive at the same time today than ever before, this is a moment to tap into our collective powers of innovation—powers born when the ideas, flexibility and dynamism of youth meet the experience, wisdom and understanding of age.

That makes age a divide well worth crossing.

The Power of Connecting the Generations includes an executive summary, along with recommendations for funders. Encore.org commissioned the essay with support from the Annenberg Foundation, The Eisner Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The cover illustration is by Gracia Lam.

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