Bridging the generational divide: what we can learn from reality TV

Last week, when our public affairs and policy officer Sam Dalton (left) joined four intergenerational connection experts for a social integration event in parliament, he found himself drawing parallels between their insights and a Channel 4 reality series that has inspired so many.

Politics and reality TV unite

This autumn the BAFTA-nominated Channel 4 series ‘Old people’s home for 4 year olds‘ has once again captured the hearts of the nation. Bringing together a group of older adults and four-year-olds at the largest retirement village in the UK, the show demonstrates just how powerful intergenerational relationships can be for the physical, emotional and social wellbeing of both age groups.

Most people watching the programme will be touched by the laughter and smiles brought about by the children and older residents’ new friendships, but there is a wider social and political significance to intergenerational initiatives like this. So while the show is likely to be a welcome break for many from the Brexit, Brexit, Brexit onslaught in the media currently, increasing opportunities for different age groups to form meaningful bonds is intrinsically tied to healing the divides exposed by the EU referendum.

Just hours before the latest episode was due to air, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Integration (chaired by Chuka Umunna MP and co-ordinated by The Challenge) was in the midst of a dynamic and thought-provoking debate on how we can strengthen ties between generations across the country.

From the House of Commons to our TV screens, intergenerational connection is a topic that has well and truly taken flight.

Enhancing intergenerational connections across society

Though the Channel 4 programme is a welcome step in showcasing the great benefits of mixing between generations, we must look beyond initiatives which focus only on the very young and very old.

At the APPG event in parliament last week the four expert speakers highlighted how everyone from toddlers to young professionals, new parents and older people have so much to gain from intergenerational relationships, and that there are many ways to create these.

Chuka Umunna MP (second right) is joined in parliament by expert speakers Alex Smith (far left), Lorraine George (second left), Vicki Titterington (centre) and Justin Shee (far right) for a debate on intergenerational connections

Lorraine George, childminding development worker at Torbay Council, was invited to speak about her research as a Winston Churchill Fellow in the US. She visited several co-located living schemes which bring older people into schools or younger children into care homes, showing that uniting generations in this way doesn’t just have to be a short-lived reality TV experiment – it can be cemented into everyday life. In some US states children spend a full two years receiving formal education within a care home, enhancing their learning and development, the wellbeing of both young and old and strengthening cross-generational understanding and respect.

While much can be done to unite generations within existing public services like this, new community-led initiatives are starting to grow in popularity too. The Cares Family, for example, has set up a wide range of activities and clubs in London, Manchester and Liverpool to bring young professionals and their older neighbours together in some of our biggest cities. Its founder and CEO, Alex Smith, has been pioneering outreach events, social clubs, community fundraising and Love Your Neighbour schemes to help tackle loneliness and foster stronger connections amongst increasingly segregated groups of younger and older people. The APPG visited one such event in Manchester in June, where different generations came together around their shared love of making music.

The work of The Cares Family is crucial because it not only attracts the very young and very old, but people across the age spectrum. Recent research found 16-24 year-olds to be the loneliest in our society, so their inclusion in intergenerational programmes is a must.

This is well understood by Justin Shee of The Kohab too, who spoke alongside Alex and Lorraine at last week’s event. His newly-founded intergenerational co-living company is aiming to create ‘natural, meaningful and modern’ ways for people to live communally in cities. Younger residents are offered discounted rents in exchange for helping their older neighbours for several hours per month – providing a practical solution to the failing retirement housing market as well as to the loneliness epidemic among both young and old.

With possibilities for intergenerational connection touching so many policy areas, a joined-up, whole-society approach is required. Vicki Titterington of Linking Generations Northern Ireland (LGNI) completed the speaker line-up last week, and drew on her experiences to show how a single organisation can coordinate such a diverse range of intergenerational innovations. LGNI do everything from connecting schools and care homes through extra-curricular activities to working with private businesses to tackle digital exclusion. As Vicki put it, they are an “enabler” for others to take action; local government, the private sector, charities and community organisations should all be involved.

Bridging Brexit’s divides

Though viewers of ‘Old people’s home for 4 year olds’ might not see an immediate link with Brexit, it is part of a larger movement of intergenerational initiatives helping to bridge the deep divide between ages highlighted by the EU vote. Building on the benefits that the show brings to young and old, we must explore ways to unite generations throughout all policy areas. From the homes people live in to the schools and music clubs they attend, now is the time to view society through an intergenerational lens.

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