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It's All Connected

It's all connected…

The demographic shift is a doorway into the big, complex, interconnected challenges we're all facing in areas like the economy, environment, education, health, social supports, and technology.

Worldwide, for the first time in history and probably for the rest of human history, people 65 and older outnumber children under age 5. By 2050, there will be more older people than children under 15.

Every day, another 10,000 Boomers turn 65 in the US alone. Fewer than half of America's cities have begun to address the changing generational landscape. Of those that have, very few are taking a systemic approach.

70% of Boomers say they want to create a positive legacy. We can take advantage of this moment in history when a large older population is at a point in their life where they're predisposed to the powerful concept of legacy. We can bring generations together in a way that's transformative across all areas and ages. The historic demographic shift has implications for all ages. What's happening in one age group affects what's happening in another. We just need to recognize and take advantage of the connections.

For example, as many as half of grade 8 students don't have the literacy skills necessary to secure a job. On the other hand, the average literacy scores of adults ages 50-64 and 65 or older has increased. Older adults have the literacy skills needed to support youth in improving their literacy skills.

Another example: In the US, about 17% of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese; since 1980, obesity among children and adolescents has almost tripled. A third of US adults are obese; obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Research shows that both children and older adults eat better and healthier when they're together in, for example, a community-based school lunch program, and can be effective health coaches for each other. So, obesity can be more effectively addressed through a whole-community rather than age-specific approach.

Historic Demographic Shift

Fast Facts (PDF) offers a global and national tour of some demographics related to adults, children, youth, and older adults. These afford some interesting cross-generational and life course observations.

The demographic shift is a doorway into the entire complex of interconnected community and global issues.

Here are some interesting and interrelated facts:

  • Life expectancy in North America has increased from 47 years for those born in 1900 to 78 years for those born in 2007. Added years equal added potential, and added impetus to find meaning across the life course. Unfortunately, in our modern society, maturity has no socially worthwhile purpose. Although medical science has prolonged our lives, political, religious and community leaders haven't created a compelling vision for what tens of millions of long-lived men and women might do with those additional years.

  • The education system, based on an outdated industrial model, is struggling to reinvent itself in light of the demands of the 21st century. Students report they don't want school made easy – they want it to be meaningful. Even for those who graduate (depending on region, 25% or more of high school students – and 40% of minorities – don't graduate on time), little guidance is provided for planning for the entire life course and creating a life path. Further, in a world of rapid change and significant challenge, lifelong learning for all ages is more important for fostering productive, engaged citizens of all ages and for countries to remain competitive in the global economy.

  • 50% of current college grads are jobless or underemployed.

  • There is an ongoing lack of living wages for the large population of unskilled/low-skilled people and the growth of income insecurities.

  • Approximately one-third of Boomers are currently earning good salaries, have made smart investments, and will benefit from inheritances their parents will leave behind. Another third will probably extend their work lives five to six years in order to enjoy a comfortable retirement. Yet, around 25 million Boomers have accumulated high levels of debt, have little savings or investments, and have no pension or inheritance coming.

  • There is a workforce shortage in skilled jobs from plumbers to nurses. There is a need for lower-skilled workers from physical labor jobs to caregivers (which includes childcare workers, homecare/health aides, nursing home aides).

  • There are growing challenges to assuring healthy lifestyles and access to quality healthcare. Stress is one of the growing health issues of this century; stress among young is growing fastest. More people of all ages are dealing with chronic disease in a healthcare system that was designed to deal with acute disease.

  • Virtually half of recent births in the US are minorities. Yet the population 65 years and older is largely white. There is the potential for rich intergenerational AND racial/cultural connections across seven generations: your own generation, three generations before you – parents, grandparents, great-grandparents – and three generations after you – children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

  • Research shows children need 4-6 involved, mature adults to fully develop emotionally and socially; unfortunately, children today get too much peer socialization.

  • 70% of all 65 year-olds will need some long-term care before they die; 8 out of 10 will get it at home, not in a nursing home. Most care is provided by family members, including youth, who are often unprepared and untrained for what is rewarding yet challenging work.

  • There is considerable evidence that links community engagement to longevity, physical and mental health, life satisfaction, and other indicators of psychological well-being of older adults.

  • Boomers currently have the highest volunteer rate of any age group. Harnessing the skills of Boomers, who are generally healthier and have higher levels of education than past elders, can be a tremendous resource for addressing numerous social challenges.

  • The world population in the early 1800s was 1 billion people. 120 years later, in the 1920s, it was 2 billion people. By 1960, 40 years later, it was about 3 billion people. Today, 50 years later, we're at 7 billion people and growing. Population growth places increasing demands on the ecosystem. There is widespread uncertainty about the environment, and how water and food supplies may be affected. There is increasing concern about our supply of energy – where it will come from, how we will pay for it, how safe it will be, and who will lead the way.

  • Scientists estimate that we need to hold the global temperature rise to 2ºC or risk crossing a tipping point from which the planet cannot recover. More significant and rapid action to reduce carbon emissions is needed in the next few years to avoid reaching this tipping point. The recent 100-page UN report on climate change, The Global Climate 2001-2010, outlines how the Earth has warmed even faster than scientists predicted. It was the warmest decade on record for both the southern and northern hemispheres. Sea levels are rising, oceans are more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting. These changes are "unprecedented," and due largely to human activity. Because the global community has waited so long to take action, we're now faced with a "double whammy" – addressing climate change itself AND dealing with the massive cost of coping with extreme weather like floods, fires, hurricanes, and other disasters. More weather instability puts more strain on communities to cope with disasters, during which the young and old are most vulnerable.

  • Technological innovation will continue to change the way products and services are delivered, change the way relationships are formed and maintained, and the way older persons interact with their surroundings. At the same time, rapid technological changes accentuate the new over the old, and accelerate the pace of change which emphasizes generational differences. Having the "latest and greatest" fuels an unsustainable consumptive economic model.

  • Even as technology makes the world smaller, people feel less meaningfully connected to each other and to nature. The lack of a sense of real cooperative, supportive community is a pressing social problem of the new millennium. And there remains an over-emphasis on competition over collaboration.

Each of these interconnected issues affects the society in which generations live, and impact directly on the quality of life families – with young and old – will experience in the near future. A big-picture perspective demands that we connect all these dots and conceive of strategic actions that address multiple issues at once.

We need bigger, better thinking that responds to the complexity and interconnection around us. As Albert Einstein pointed out, "we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them." We are desperate for bigger thinking. But big-picture, higher-level, long-term thinking is rare and difficult in today's world. We must make it commonplace and accessible.

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