Why schools should bridge the generational divide


Nov 15, 2018

Every so often a book I’m reading for work morphs into a book I’m reading for pleasure. This month that book was Marc Freedman’s How to Live Forever. Freedman’s is, in many ways, a book about abundance: the abundance of human beings, young and old, who could benefit from one another’s energy, wisdom, and experience. It is also, however, a book about a profound market failure.

Despite that abundance, we are witnessing mounting levels of loneliness and isolation among aging populations and an acute need for access to caring adults and mentors among young people. Squaring that supply and demand (in both directions) is not a given. In fact, many of our systems and cultural institutions—from schools, to neighborhoods, to senior living facilities—have inadvertently segregated young and old.

For example, a third of people over fifty-five live in neighborhoods primarily made up of people of the same age and only 6 percent of people over sixty discussed “important matters” with non-family members under thirty-six years old.

Freedman highlights an array of promising models aiming to stem this growing divide. They range from substitute teaching models to afterschool programs to urban redesign efforts. Although he looks at innovative programs well beyond the reach of schools, I personally think this book is a must-read for all school system leaders looking for ways to increase the human and social capital at their students’ disposal.

Reading about these innovations, here are three things schools should consider:

  1. Latent connections with symbiotic potential are all around us.

Many of the new models that Freedman highlights have innovation theory in their favor. For example, he cites the rise of “integrators” who are bringing existing institutions, like senior centers and preschools, together. Across industries in our own work, we’ve found that innovative organizations that often pursue interdependent architecture integrate across broken interfaces in order to increase performance. Efforts to bring together institutions serving young and old are doing just that. For example, at Judson Manor in Cleveland, graduate students live alongside senior citizens. Others like Nesterly have taken this notion of cohabitation a step further, creating a two-sided tech platform to match older people with graduate students looking for affordable housing.

In a different vein, Freedman discusses the role of “infiltrators”—innovators who are “injecting older or younger people into settings where you might not have found them previously.” Although not all of these programs are technically disruptive, some appear to follow that tack. For example, Encore, which Freedman himself runs, offers low-cost fellows—often on their second or third careers—to work for social sector organizations that need support, ushering in a model that could disrupt the limitations of stubbornly age-segregated professional networks.

  1. School redesign is leaving older generations out.

Encouraging as these innovations may be, Freedman is fairly frank about the bureaucratic headwinds they face from traditional institutions and technocrat measurement regimes.

Freedman’s book is chock-full of stories of inspiring individuals who have broken through those barriers and created nonprofits, institutions, and connections in wholly new ways. But one of the book’s less fuzzy protagonists is a giant blob-like monster always looming in the background: school systems. Schools—much like senior centers—were not designed to put students in relationship with their elders or to integrate non-teacher adults at scale. Their designs are stubbornly fixed.

Freedman’s book should be a wake-up call to schools—especially those pioneering radical new designs—that they may be leaving a huge, latent asset on the table if they are not finding ways to integrate (or be infiltrated by) older generations around them.

In our own research, a single entrepreneur rarely disrupts an entire industry. Rather, systems disrupt systems. Perhaps the best hope for Freedman’s vision to come to roost in education systems is the current school redesign movement sweeping the United States. Many schools—particularly high schools—are considering ways to open their doors to community- and work-based learning programs and to usher in unprecedented flexibility to how and when students learn. At the same time, the science of integrated student supports suggests that access to community resources and relationships from a young age can have a major impact on the trajectories of young people, especially those growing up in poverty.

That said, in my conversations around the country about school redesign I rarely hear talk of efforts to involve older members of the community in these designs. As schools make strides to open their doors and integrate more outside adults into their models, older generations are key assets schools could start to unlock.

  1. Relationships are the outcomenot a mere input

If the innovations that Freedman describes in the book stand to scale, connections—rather than their one-off benefits—will need to be their north star. Throughout, Freedman reflects on relationships not just as the means to various goals—like boosting literacy or graduation rates—but as a critical end unto themselves.

This point is not just sentimental, it’s practical. Metrics matter. They define the trajectories along which we innovate. They also define the viability of business models. It’s not surprising that today in schools most models that incorporate outside adults—from mentorship to tutoring efforts—join a host of other interventions we hope can move the needle on our existing metrics of academic success. But as such, we risk limiting mentorship to being only an intervention that might help our current systems work better, rather than a tool to fundamentally disrupt the system. We also risk belittling relationships, despite the fact that they help us to get by and get ahead throughout our lives. Here I suspect that our elders might be our best hope at forcing schools to recalibrate on measurement.

As research shows, relationships have a number of benefits outside of traditional metrics like test scores, such as better health and happiness later in life. In the end, relationships are outcomes, not just raw materials intended to produce ‘outputs’. Although Freedman’s book doesn’t offer a tidy way to quantify this phenomenon, the stories he tells are a start. They illustrate the undeniable, profound—and too often missed—opportunity to forge enduring connections across generations.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her new book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks" https://amzn.to/2RIqwOk.