What is age segregation and why is it bad?

This post is excerpted from a report I recently wrote with Generations United and the Eisner Foundation, “I Need You, You Need Me: The Young, the Old, and What We Can Achieve Together.”

We live in an age-segregated society.Kids spend their days at school, mostly among peers born the same year they were. Young and middle-aged adults cluster at work. And elders gather for clubs, classes, and meals that often expressly bar the young.

At night, some of us go home to our children or our parents, but millions of college students and elders live in age-restricted housing, and about six in ten American neighborhoods skew young or old. Nearly 25 percent of the nation’s neighborhoods contain a disproportionately high share of elders, while another 31 percent contain either a disproportionately high share of children and their parents or a disproportionately high share of young adults.

For the most part, we spend time with people close to us in age. Here’s why we should branch out.

Strikingly, in a recent Generations United/Eisner Foundation survey of adults around the country, more than half of respondents—53 percent—said that aside from family members, few of the people they regularly spend time with are much older or much younger than they are.

Young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 appear to be the most isolated from other generations, with 61 percent reporting a limited number of much older or much younger acquaintances. And most young adults—64 percent—say they’re sometimes unsure how to talk to people who are significantly older or younger than they are.

Age segregation is new

It wasn’t always this way.

In early America, the generations mixed pretty freely, even though high mortality rates in middle age kept the population of elders small. Kids didn’t necessarily go to school, and when they did, their classrooms weren’t stratified by age. For better and for worse, children, youth, and adults of all ages worked on farms and in factories and other settings together. This was even true in the military, where boys as young as 11 fought alongside elders in their 60s. Retirement was practically unheard of, largely because few could afford it.

But in the late nineteenth century, Americans began to recognize both children and elders as vulnerable populations that deserved public protection, a shift that was soon reflected in new policies and institutions. Schooling became compulsory and age-graded, child labor was banned, and youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and 4-H were created. When the Great Depression proved disastrous for elders, the Social Security program was launched. All the same, high rates of elder poverty persisted, prompting a raft of laws to combat it in the 1960s. Thus Social Security payments were increased, Medicare was established, and senior centers and senior housing were created nationwide. Retirement became a standard phase of life.

Because of these changes, children and elders thrived as never before. But, inadvertently, the changes also consigned both groups to isolation— from mainstream society and from one another.

The public doesn’t like age segregation

Fortunately, Americans still believe that kids and elders merit special treatment. A phenomenal 93 percent of adults think children and youth are a vulnerable population that society has an obligation to protect, the new Generations United/Eisner Foundation survey shows, while 92 percent believe the same about elders. Nearly as many adults—88 percent—said the federal government should invest in the wellbeing of both age groups.

But now, we realize that protection should not equal isolation.

Children and youth benefit from building relationships with elders in their communities, agree 93 percent of adults; elders benefit from these relationships as well, say 91 percent. An overwhelming majority of adults—77 percent—wish there were more opportunities in their community for people from different age groups to meet and get to know one another.

Notably, most adults—78 percent—believe the federal government should invest in programs that bring together young and old Americans. Sixty-one percent of adults would like to see more parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers that cater to all ages; 60 percent want more youth to visit and help elders in their homes; and 60 percent want more elders to mentor and tutor children and youth.

Age integration helps everyone

Scholars, too, are calling for age barriers to be eased—for everyone’s sake.

“[A]ge segregation is neither natural nor benign,” according to Peter Uhlenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For one thing, when the generations don’t mix, it’s easy for them to see one another as rivals. By contrast, when people of all ages get to know one another, they tend to unite around shared goals instead.

What’s more, scholars say, age segregation nurtures ageism—a form of discrimination that 76 percent of adults consider a serious problem in our society, according to the Generations United/Eisner Foundation survey. Conversely, if the generations were integrated, we would all be less fearful of and more empathic toward people who are much older or younger than we are.

Age integration would chip away at racial and ethnic divides, too, since a disproportionately large share of elders in this country are white, while a disproportionately large share of young people are minorities. Similarly, if the young and the old came together, so would people with political differences, since, on the whole, young people are more liberal than their elders.

Besides, blending the generations saves taxpayers money: why should a community build a teen center on one end of town and a senior center on the other when it would be cheaper if they shared a roof? When kids and elders are served at a single facility rather than at two separate ones, costs per client tend to decline, research shows.

Most significantly, age segregation is denying the young and the old crucial opportunities to serve one another and their communities, scholars say.

While many elders face significant challenges, older Americans generally enjoy more financial security and better physical health than they used to. With their careers winding down and their basic needs met, they’re looking to contribute to the public good. But too often, there’s no clear path for them to follow, since old age is still structured as a time of retreat.

Meanwhile, our children and youth are hurting. Twenty-one percent of U.S. kids live in poverty, even though the overall poverty rate is only 14 percent; another 22 percent of children are nearly poor. Poor kids are far more likely than their peers to struggle both academically and emotionally, and their parents are often under enormous strain. Many would benefit from effective tutoring and mentoring—which, in an age-integrated society, elders could be mobilized to provide.

With greater age integration, young people could also be mobilized to help elders, particularly those who are isolated and lonely.

A third of Americans over age 65 and half of those over 85 live alone. In one survey, nearly half of respondents between the ages of 62 and 91 reported feeling lonely at least occasionally, while 19 percent reported frequent loneliness. Recently, scientists have linked loneliness to depression, cognitive decline, high blood pressure, and premature death; it may be worse for us than obesity and just as bad as smoking.

If isolated elders enjoyed regular visits from energetic young people, their loneliness could be eased and their health boosted. At the same time, their visitors would derive the satisfaction that accompanies productive service to society—a satisfaction that, for too long, both the young and the old have been denied.