In an Age-Segregated Society, New Support for Cogenerational Leaders

an intergenerational team supported by CoGenerate, for the Plant Futures Initiative. Photo courtesy of CoGenerate.

As American society ages and the population of the world as a whole grows older, interest in aging and age-related issues is on the rise among many funders. One growing focus among aging-related funders and nonprofits: programs that unite people across generations. This month, generational integration got another boost. 

Marc Freedman, founder and co-CEO of the nonprofit CoGenerate and a longtime innovator in the field of maximizing later adulthood, along with Michelle Armstrong, head of philanthropy and executive director of Ares Charitable Foundation, announced the launch of the CoGen Challenge to Advance Economic Opportunity during a webinar on September 6. The challenge is designed to elevate “cogenerational models that bring older and younger generations together to help create a more inclusive and prosperous future.” 

Its main feature is eight $20,000 fellowships for innovators focused on cogenerational work of all kinds that addresses economic opportunity. Fellows will participate in a six-month accelerator program, running from January through June 2024, and then showcase their work next summer. Applications are now open, through October 16. 

The Ares Foundation, which funds organizations dedicated to career preparation and reskilling, entrepreneurship and financial literacy, gave CoGenerate $700,000 for the challenge. Armstrong said that she’s been following GoGenerate (formerly Encore.Org) for years, and especially values the thoughtfulness with which the organization approaches its work. As she said in the webinar, “I cannot think of a more timely point in our history to have this challenge than right now. One in 6 individuals is age 65 and older today. So this challenge is incredibly important for right now at this particular moment.”

While plenty of parents in the “sandwich generation” may be scrambling to set up cogenerational playdates between their aging parents and wily toddlers, nationally, we are living in one of the most age-diverse — and age-segregated — societies that has ever existed in human history, as Freedman pointed out during the webinar. Living in “age silos” contributes to a slew of problems, including loneliness and isolation among older adults, ageism and the compounding of existing inequities. It also means that as a nation, we are failing to harness the talent, perspective and wisdom of experienced adults, and the creativity sparked by intergenerational conversation to solve our greatest challenges. This is the thinking behind much of today’s intergenerational philanthropy and the programs it creates and supports. 

Overcoming age segregation

Freedman is a huge champion of intergenerational involvement, and his organization has been a frequent grantee of the Eisner Foundation, the largest single philanthropy solely focused on intergenerational work. As Freedman put it, the United States today has so much age segregation that it has been described as existing in a state of “age apartheid.” Age integration, or “age diversity,” to use a different term for the same basic concept, opens huge possibilities. “These groups can do together what no generation can do alone. We now know that there is deep, pent-up demand on the part of older and younger people to do just that,” Freedman said. 

I’ve become increasingly aware of age diversity in my own work and social spaces — and the benefits it brings. Just last week, I turned to the 20-something women sitting next to me at the WeWork on the Santa Monica Promenade and said, “What’s the difference between posting something on my feed versus my story?” Instant younger-generation insight. Similarly, the very new adults at the gym who always seem to be snapping selfies (next to the 60-something powerlifters actually using the machines) have excellent intel on portable tripods, including those with remote control. 

Research, however, shows that my experience is not the norm nationwide. The CoGenerate Challenge is a way to support and amplify more wide-ranging, transformative examples of the power of cogenerational collaboration. 

CoGenerate isn’t new to funding fellowships, but this challenge has more specific parameters than its recent Innovation Fellows program, said Cristina Rodriguez, director of the CoGen Challenge and a previous CoGenerate Innovation Fellow. “Now, we are shifting into these thematic challenges, with the first one being advancing economic opportunity.”

The next challenge will be focused on cogenerational solutions to isolation and loneliness, Rodriguez said. The RRF Foundation for Aging is one funder there, and CoGenerate is actively seeking additional financial partners. Rodriguez said that in her experience as a fellow, the camaraderie and community were as important as the funding. “I also saw the social capital that is available to open doors to opportunities. A fellow made a connection between my group, Mind&Melody, and a drum company that had a therapeutic drumming program. That allowed us to create an additional fee-for-service program.” 

A webinar series to raise awareness

The CoGen Challenge is also hosting a webinar series for thought leaders to offer insight on cogenerational collaboration — and the lack thereof. Freedman and Armstrong announced the challenge in the first of these webinars on September 6, then turned over the (virtual) podium to CoGenerate co-CEO Eunice Lin Nichols, along with Ai-Jen Poo, one of the nation’s leading experts on caregiving. 

Poo is the director of Caring Across Generations, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, author of “The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America” and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship. She is a huge presence in the caregiving and aging space, and has often weighed in here at IP on funding for caregiving, worker power, progressive movements and more. This was my first chance to hear her speak. I was struck by her glowing, luminous countenance, her warm smile and her empathetic tone.

Poo said that she thinks generational segregation is a key reason for our nation’s notoriously inadequate caregiving infrastructure and lack of support for caregivers, who are generally women of color, and often immigrants. “What’s at stake here is every form of inequity,” she said. Poo also noted that she sees a real shift toward advocates working together to support caregiving across the lifespan and to bring generations together to do so. She also reiterated Freedman’s point that we need the power of intergenerational creativity to solve the incredible challenges facing us as a nation and as a planet. As she put it, “We just can’t afford to leave any talent on the table.”