We like to think of ourselves as a tolerant and diverse society, in which people of different classes, colours and creeds all rub along. It doesn’t always work out that way, and even in a cosmopolitan city like London, there’s a visible degree of self-segregation.
Nevertheless, compared to other times and places, our society is remarkably well-integrated in almost every regard. But there’s an exception – an aspect of human diversity where we’ve become less integrated compared to other cultures (and our own past).
The argument is made by Leon Neyfakh in a thought-provoking piece for the Boston Globe. Our society, he says, “has become far too segregated by age”:
“Senior citizens live in nursing homes where they mainly see other very old people, while new retirees now often buy condos in age-segregated communities where younger people aren’t even allowed to live. Adolescents, who in a previous era might have spent significant time around adults while farming, apprenticing, or helping with the family business, spend their after-school hours on social media, talking mostly to one another. It is possible, today, for a middle-aged office worker to go to sleep on a Friday having interacted all week with not one person more than a decade older or younger; the same could well be true for her daughter in college, or her parents living at Pleasant Oaks Village.”
The kind of societies we live in have been described as WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) – i.e. fundamentally different from the way that people have lived for most of human history (and still do live in many parts of the world). One of the weirdest things about us is surely the apartheid of the generations:
“According to one study, Americans over 60 said that only a quarter of the people they had discussed ‘important matters’ with during a six-month period were younger than 36; if they didn’t count relatives, the number dropped to an astonishing 6 percent.”
It can be argued that this is how people with freedom and options choose to live. When we can live where we like, work where we like and socialise with who we like – this tends to bring people of similar ages together.
Leon Neyfakh acknowledges the upside, but invites us to also consider the costs:
“Age segregation… can sow distrust and prejudice between generations, and robs people of the chance to learn from those younger and older than them. Kids, the research indicates, develop important skills by interacting with adults and making friends of different ages, while the elderly have been shown to benefit from spending time around children. There is also evidence that age segregation can affect the economic well-being of a community by making people from different age groups blind to each other’s needs.”
This isn’t just about segregation between generations, but also within generations. For instance, the degree to which children are segregated by year group within schools is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Furthermore, within the home, smaller families mean that the typical age gap between the youngest and the oldest sibling is much narrower than it used to be. Some anthropologists believe this makes for a more competitive and less nurturing society – and that the wide-ranging exclusion of children from the adult world fosters the development of anti-social behaviour.
Neyfakh mentions a few initiatives designed to bring the generations together – such as a retirement village situated next to a university campus so that retirees can attend lectures and other college events. This sort of thing is highly commendable, but if we really want to re-integrate our society we have to start with the family.
We need to challenge the long-hours culture that robs children of time with their parents. We need planning policies that give young couples access to affordable family homes – preferably within reach of grandma and granddad. And we must end our shameful indifference to family breakdown – in particular, the absence of fathers in so many children’s lives.
Without intact, multi-generational families it is difficult to see how we can have an intact, multi-generational society.