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We’re All in this Together: Generations Serving Generations

24.12.2012

While countries across the Asia-Pacific are experiencing diverse trends in ageing, one point is clear - the intensity of ageing will inevitably increase across the region with the share of the population over 60 years set to double from 9.4 per cent of the total population in 2000 to 23.5 per cent by 2050 (ESCAP, 2005).

With this dramatic increase, how governments respond to challenges today will decide not only the wellbeing of current youth and older generations, but of generations yet to come. UNESCO Bangkok’s Rachel McCarthy interviewed Jane Angelis, Director of Generations Serving Generation and Christopher Foulkes, UNESCO ‘youth’ and fellow colleague to find out more about this important issue, the role older generations can play in education systems today, perspectives on the Delors’ four pillars of learning and engaging older generations in the future of learning beyond 2015.

Rachel: So Jane, please tell us what Generations Serving Generations is all about?

Jane: The group called Generations Serving Generations was started in Illinois, the home state of President Obama, and is based on the idea that all generations benefit when they work together. The group was launched in the environment of rapidly aging populations in both developed and developing countries and the realization by many governments that older generations are an asset to society.

Generations Serving Generations was part of the National Governor’s Association Project on the Civic Engagement of Older Adults, which was launched in 2008.  The goal was to improve the health and lives of older Americans and to increase their involvement in service, learning, and work. Generations Serving Generations connects people from education, aging, service, business, the legislature, retiree organizations, youth organizations, faith-based organizations, libraries, community colleges, and municipal organizations through a public-private partnership that emphasizes the benefits of generations learning and serving.

A recent survey found that upwards of 80% of those 50+ want to do more to help younger generations but they also respond that they don't know how to get involved with volunteer opportunities. The goals of Generations Serving Generations are to

  • Build an infrastructure of involvement that gives older generations an easy-to-access way of connecting to younger generations;
  • Communicate the importance of civic engagement to retirees, educators, employers, and the public;
  • Work with the legislative body in Illinois to develop policy and public support for civic engagement. A Senate Forum on Intergenerational Leadership is scheduled for April 2013.

The question remains, what can individuals do to create a successful Ageing Society? A successful ageing society is one that prospers, includes the skills and talents of everyone including those who often fall behind, and relies on a blueprint based on the four pillars of learning.

Rachel: That is absolutely fascinating. Why is this work so important now?

Jane: People of all ages are beginning to realize that the future will be different. For the first time in the history of the world, the 65+ population will be equal to that of younger generations. Many countries are beginning to consider steps for older adults as potential economic resources rather than problems. For example, the Treasury Department in Australia has published three reports called Realising the Economic Potential of Senior Australians. The World Economic Forum published Global Population Ageing and Japan has prepared a Basic Plan for Education that includes older adults.

Japan has the largest percentage of older adults (21.6%) followed by Italy (20%) and Germany (20%) according to the 2008 International Census Bureau. Their Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has worked diligently to include the Ageing Society as part of their strategic plan. They have a seven-point vision regarding the role of older adults. Germany has established over 400 intergenerational centers to pull generations together by targeting the local needs of elders and youth.

Rachel: As a fellow youth, what’s your perspective on this, Chris? Why is this so important now?

Chris: This question suggests that older people’s contribution to society didn’t use to be that important but something has changed recently and it has suddenly become vital. I don’t think that is the case. To me the contribution of older people and the type of work Generations Serving Generations does has always been extremely important to society, and it remains so. What is changing is the dual forces of the demographic shift toward a large cohort of those aged 65+ and a developmental shift towards perceiving older people as a burden that should be put out to pasture rather than an asset.

While previously, older people were seen as vital to a child’s pastoral and educational needs, the shift toward the professionalization of both these fields has seen this lessen. I see the work of Generations Serving Generations as key to tapping into the institutional and generational knowledge of older people and utilizing their vast experience and skills to help equip and educate society.

Rachel: So what more can be done to improve the wellbeing of older generations?

Jane: Nobel Economist Robert Fogel says it best: “Stay active physically and intellectually and surround yourself with younger people.” The example of the four pillars of learning illustrates how learning is beneficial for all generations.

Learning to know is highlighted in mentoring programs when elders encourage students and help them succeed and support them when they don't. The students reciprocate by helping elders learn more about technology and connecting with their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Learning to do relates to the idea of elders sharing their experiences particularly teaching younger generations a craft or skills for a job. Younger generations help elders stay independent by helping with chores, offering a hand with tasks that have become too difficult. Learning to be is the essence of intergenerational activities. 

Chris: In my experience, which is non-academic and not based in the field of aged care but rather totally personal, there are three things that will improve the well-being of older people. First, obviously improved physical care and surroundings goes a long way. Second, older people maintaining physically and mentally active lives will help improve well-being significantly. Third, older people feeling they are actually useful to society and not a burden gives them a drive to contribute.

Getting older generations involved in education as Generations Serving Generations is doing addresses the latter two steps. Involvement with children and education certainly keeps you active but also gives a sense of pride and achievement that you are helping the future – as any school teacher, or parent, will attest!

Rachel: Okay, now turning it around, what more do you think older generations can do to improve the wellbeing of younger generations?

Jane: As I mentioned before, improving the wellbeing of older generations is really just the other side of the same coin of improving the wellbeing of younger generations. They have a reciprocal relationship. For example, projects such as oral history help younger generations understand the legacy that is theirs and the dedication of their forebears. Likewise, youth share their unique generational characteristics that build understanding across all generations. Learning to work together is the wide path that will determine future prosperity in the world. Peace and hope result when countries and generations find common ground.

Chris: I totally agree with Jane. As I mentioned earlier, I think older generations have been vital to the educational and pastoral care of children for time immemorial, their vast stock of experiential knowledge and the time they are so often willing to give to impart that knowledge is a huge asset  not only to the children who benefit directly, but also society generally.

Rachel: Turning now to UNESCO’s bread-and-butter: lifelong learning, learning that is flexible, diverse and available at different times and in different places is based on Delors’ (1996) four ‘pillars’ of education for the future. These include: learning to know, learning to do, learning to be and learning to live together. How do these ideas you've raised contribute to these pillars and in particular, learning to live together?

Chris: Where I come from there is a well-known Ben Lee song called “We’re All in this Together” which has been appropriated by the New Zealand Salvation Army. To me, that song epitomizes the link between the ideas we have raised about the importance of recognizing and utilizing the worth of older people in the education of younger people and the concept of learning to live together. After all, we are all in this together, and not utilizing the vast experiential resource the older people generally willingly offer seems to me to be a great waste. Interaction between generations increases understanding in both directions which increases the ability for society to function cohesively and with a measure of empathy of all of its members. To me, this is key to learning to live together. 

Jane: I’ve already mentioned the links between the pillars of the Delors’ Report and my ideas, but I think Chris has put it quite nicely and, although I don’t know the song, I totally agree with him.

Rachel: We are now moving toward 2015, the deadline for the MDGs and the EFA goals with much discussion on what any future development agenda should look like. In this context, what future do you dream of for our older generations? What can we do to make that future a reality?

Chris: Jane has called this my ‘vision’, but I see it as a series of incoherent aspirations rather than a vision per se. It seems to me that in the Asia-Pacific region one of the most critical junctures in which older people tend to be very involved in children’s pastoral and educational care is when the parents of those children have been required to migrate for labour reasons and leave their children behind. In my mind this is a huge and unrecognised area which should be recognised by a new version of the MGDs and is often critical for EFA. I would like to see governments in developing countries in the Asia-Pacific actively consider developing policies to incentivize active involvement of older people in the educational development of children with absentee parents.   

Jane: Education policy will help highlight the benefits of intergenerational learning for all ages. The results align with the goals of Generations Serving Generations, that is, to improve the health and lives of older generations and increase their involvement in service, learning and work. The form that this takes will vary across different contexts and in different fields and if we continue to have energetic young people and organisations like yourselves who are willing to work with us to advance that goal then I think the outcomes can only be positive.

For more information,contact Ms. Margarete Sachs-Israel [m.sachs-israel(at)unesco.org] or Ms. Rachel McCarthy [r.mccarthy(at)unesco.org] at the Education Policy and Reform Unit.  


Written by Ms. Rachel McCarthy [r.mccarthy(at)unesco.org]


Related Link:  

• Generations Serving Generations
• Education Beyond 2015
• Beyond 2015 - Rethinking Learning in a Changing World
• Towards EFA 2015 and Beyond – Shaping a New Vision for Education