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  • Jan Flynn

“A Solution Waiting To Happen”

The Exciting Potential of Cogeneration

Photo by Malin K. on Unsplash

I was on a Zoom this week with the Crow’s Feet podcast team

ICYMI: Crow’s Feet: Life As We Age is a publication within the Medium platform — one of the better ones, in my never-humble opinion, and one that I often write for. In June, Crow’s Feet launched a monthly podcast, and I’m part of the production team. We have weekly Zoom meetings, and I always sign off feeling lucky to be involved with such a bright and engaged group, all of them interesting and interested.

We often talk about the potential of people in their second or third acts of life, which too often lays dormant. Someone mentioned the concept of “senior service corps.” My ears perked right up.

I’ve always liked the idea of national service for high school seniors — the concept of a federally funded gap year program that would send kids to different parts of the country or world. With room, board, and training, they could work on any number of projects. They could strengthen communities and solve problems.

Young people would learn skills, broaden their horizons, and have the satisfaction of making a real contribution — and perhaps get a better grip on the direction in which they’d like to steer their futures before they then head off to college or trade school. The nation would reap the benefits of all that focused, youthful energy. Everybody wins.

It’s a fond dream of mine — fond in the sense that Shakespeare used the word, meaning lightly foolish, because I’ve done exactly zero to make it a reality. It’s just a nice thought I’ve played with or yammered about at cocktail parties.

But the Zoom discussion got my wheels turning. What if national service combined the talents of two populations: those who are preparing to embark on college or career, and those who have a lot of experience in adulting and who may no longer have to punch a clock?

National service is in fact, a thing: the U.S. does have in place the AmeriCorps program — and it contains a branch organization, AmeriCorps Seniors, that offers people 55 and over lots of volunteer opportunities that allow them to give back to their communities.

But the two branches operate separately. AmeriCorps workers may in fact spend time assisting elders in the community, and AmeriCorps Seniors may do things like volunteer in schools to help kids learn to read. There are lots of local organizations that operate along the same lines. Youngers help olders, or olders impart learning to youngers.

That’s all good. But what about youngers and olders working together in common cause? Is that a thing?

Yes, it’s a thing! It’s called cogeneration

It didn’t take me much digging on the Interwebs to uncover Encore.org. It’s whole purpose is to dismantle what some have called “age apartheid”, the artificial and divisive segregation of age groups that has contributed to societal division, isolation, and “splintered movements for social change.” Here’s a quote from their website:

Encore.org was founded on the belief that the aging of America isn’t so much a problem to be solved as it is an opportunity to be seized. For 20 years, we’ve worked to change cultural expectations for the years beyond 50 and spark a movement around second acts for the greater good. In our own second act, we bring older and younger changemakers together to solve problems, bridge divides, and co-create the future. https://encore.org/about/

Well, how cool is that, I thought. It got more interesting as I investigated further. Encore has a number of intriguing programs in place. Two of them are the Gen2Gen Innovation Fellowship, which supports those working to bridge generational divides, and an annual “ideas festival,” Co-generate! Livestream, to help different age groups find innovative ways to work together.

There are more, but here’s what really caught my eye: earlier this year Encore commissioned NORC at the University of Chicago to conduct a nationwide survey of over 1500 respondents, most of them with hour-long phone conversations. In June, the results were released in a report with a tantalizing title (especially the subtitle) — Cogeneration: is America Ready to Unlease a Mulitgeneral Force For Good?

The key findings are stirring. Over 60% of respondents across all the age groups surveyed (ages 18-25; 26-41; 42-57; 58-76; 77 and up) expressed strong interest in working across generations for positive change and to improve the world. Strikingly, younger people as well as Black and Hispanic people of all ages were especially eager to work across age groups. The survey also revealed a powerful fit: young people want to learn from older people, and older people want to share their knowledge — and, interestingly, vice versa.

The survey asked respondents to rate the importance of several issues, including climate change, education, mental health, and racial justice. There were some differences in the age groups in terms of priorities — most notably that Gen X (18-25) rated mental health much more urgently than Boomers (58-76), who were more focused on climate change and the environment. No doubt there’s a lot to unpack there.

The last key finding is that all the age groups reported obstacles, the most common one expressed as, “I can’t find opportunities to work with people of other generations.” That may not be so surprising, but it’s very useful to articulate the barriers. Once you know where the gaps are, you know where to fill in.

Overall, reading the report summary gives me a case of The Hope

And couldn’t we all use some of that? The prospect of bridging age divides, racial divides, cultural divides, and working alongside people from whom I’m typically sequestered by circumstance or policy or just the way our society is set up — that’s exciting. I’ll be keeping an eye on Encore.org. I’m ready to climb out of my silo, burst out of my bubble, see who I can partner with to do some good — and it turns out I’m far from alone.

I’m ready to cogenerate. Who’s with me?

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