Shared experiences: why we’re better off when we’re united for all ages

Quality in Ageing and Older Adults

ISSN: 1471-7794

Article publication date: 30 November 2012



Burke, S. (2012), "Shared experiences: why we’re better off when we’re united for all ages", Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, Vol. 13 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Shared experiences: why we’re better off when we’re united for all ages

Article Type: Editorial From: Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, Volume 13, Issue 4

This special edition of Quality in Ageing and Older Adults is all about age and not just about older people. It marks the end of 2012 – not just the year when the London Olympics and Paralympics really were games for all ages in the UK, but also the end of the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations.

Much has been done in the UK to promote intergenerational action. There are many projects around the country showing what can be done but many are piecemeal, underfunded and seen as the icing on the cake – nice but not essential. But if you are in any doubt about what could be achieved, read the paper in this edition by Nancy Z. Henkin and Donna M. Butts. Donna heads up Generations United in the USA, and together they demonstrate the contribution that intergenerational action makes to all sorts of family and community issues with an impact across the USA. If they can achieve so much, why cannot we do more in the UK?

The focus of this special edition therefore is on some big social and economic issues and how they can be tackled by bringing people of different ages together rather than just focusing on one age group. We could all benefit from this approach regardless of our own particular age but there could be additional benefits for older people in particular.

Take just one issue for example – the growing recognition of loneliness and isolation facing older people in our ageing society. Clearly younger people have a big role to play in making contact with older people in their community; but the benefits could also be long term for young people themselves in building social networks and engaging in their neighbourhood, as well as reducing the risks of loneliness as they grow older themselves. Laura Ferguson writes about how the Campaign to End Loneliness is making this happen locally and nationally.

This special edition features a range of practical examples where projects are tackling big issues like housing and community regeneration, youth unemployment, caring within families, the world of work and worklessness, healthy ageing, and arts and culture. It concludes with a paper by Annabel Knight of the Gulbenkian Foundation on their programme funding intergenerational activities which should be of interest to anyone planning work by and for all ages.

There are a number of themes and lessons which I would draw out from these papers:

  • Our changing society – readers of this journal know better than most that we are living longer. As a society we have been slow to respond to our ageing population, and when we have done so, the focus has been on people above a certain age, normally over the ages of 50-65. What we have failed to do is properly consider the implications of our ageing society for people of all ages. What do we do in schools about our ageing population to prepare children and younger people? What about the growing number of multigenerational households? How do younger people’s lives change as a result? And how can they contribute and benefit? Finally why does family policy tend to ignore older people despite the contribution of grandparents and great-grandparents to raising children and supporting families?

  • A real need – it is motherhood and apple pie, bringing older and younger people together – of course we should do it. But people will only come together if there are common concerns and shared interests, in other words a real need that we collectively want to tackle. What United for All Ages is trying to do is move intergenerational work on from being “nice to do” to making a real difference on issues that we are all concerned about. This special edition focuses on some of those real needs – for example the changing world of work. Three papers look at youth unemployment, longer working lives and multigenerational workplaces through an all ages lens. They show the importance of tackling unemployment amongst younger people if we are to sustain employment in later life and why working together has mutual benefits as workplaces change.

  • Think all ages – perhaps the biggest challenge is getting policymakers, funders, the media and other stakeholders to think differently. We are still very much a society segregated by age, where so much thinking and activity is compartmentalised. But if we were to get out of our silos – working with just older people or with children and young people and families for example – and look instead at how we work with communities and families of all ages, then there is huge potential for more effective and more efficient interventions and outcomes. To take one example from this special edition, where does the role of grandparents fit into family policy and how do we ensure that the reciprocal relationships in families between older people and children and young people really are mutually beneficial? Sarah Wellard from Grandparents Plus points to ways in which grandparents’ contribution could be much better supported. Getting rid of the silos would have multiple benefits.

  • Think big – part of the change of mindset is also about what is possible. Too often intergenerational initiatives have not just been small scale but also small in ambition. This edition aims to show that there are big issues that could be tackled by action for all ages. But we need to convince policymakers of the benefits. Perhaps the biggest “cost-benefit” is around healthy ageing as set out by Chris Minett. Helping people to stay healthier in later life must be a win-win for them as individuals and for our wider society in terms of reducing costs to the NHS. It is never too late to start towards a healthier lifestyle but the gains will be bigger if we start earlier, so let us get children and younger people engaged and active in their own ageing.

  • Think and act family and community – intergenerational initiatives have tended to adopt a community focus but the starting point for most people is their own family, where older relatives and the extended family often play a major role. With many families living in different parts of the country or world, can older people be “surrogate grandparents” in their local community? Can we make better use of the resources that exist in all communities to support families of all ages – from children’s centres and schools to libraries, care homes and older people’s housing schemes? Such “shared sites” could bring communities together and save money in tough times. We have to start where we live and Kirsty Fox explains why housing providers should support stronger communities.

  • Shared experiences – ultimately this edition is about shared experiences between people of all ages. It is not an academic exercise as these papers make clear but often we are not very good at telling the stories that underpin these shared experiences. We need to get better at doing that and using the media to do so. One final paper celebrates storytelling through drama written by people of all ages with the award-winning London Bubble theatre company. No doubt the London Olympics and Paralympics will fuel storytelling by all ages in the UK for years to come.

I hope that the articles in this special edition will inspire and stimulate new thinking and action. Think about what could be possible and act to create a Britain for all ages, a Europe for all ages and a world for all ages.

As I said at the start, look at what has already been achieved in the USA. Let me give the final words to Henkin and Butts: “Intergenerational work has the potential to bring ages, races and cultures together to support policies and practices that help all individuals become productive citizens who use their skills and talents to contribute to the communities in which they live. It can promote values that foster a sense of interdependence, promote lifelong contribution, and increase recognition of shared fate.”

Stephen BurkeDirector, United for All Ages,,

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