Phyllis N. Segal, Encore.org (a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating intergenerational innovation). The author is a former board member of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Phyllis N. Segal, Senior Fellow, Encore.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Intergenerational National Service by, With, and for All Ages
Deep divisions existed in the United States well before 2020, but the risk they pose to American democracy brings new urgency to bridging them. We have entered a period that President Biden has called an “uncivil war.” In addition, our country’s current economic and social challenges, which also began well before this past year, have been inflamed by a pandemic that has already taken more lives than the two World Wars and the Vietnam War combined, and infected tens of millions more. Americans have witnessed the largest increase in poverty in six decades. School shutdowns are causing learning losses that could hobble an entire generation. Social isolation has exacerbated loneliness—most seriously affecting the mental health of younger and older adults.
Moreover, the pandemic has intensified the divisions that thwart social cohesion. One of these divides is between generations, as grief, fear, and instability have led people to hold someone responsible. In public and private discourse, young people have been blamed for spreading the virus, while older adults’ vulnerability has been seen as causing shutdowns. Portrayals such as these, based on faulty thinking that all people born at the same time are alike, pit generations against each other. This sticky narrative—compounded by the divergent economic effects on older and younger people—in turn has fueled an outbreak of ageism adversely affecting older and younger alike.
Connecting older and younger people through national service can make headway on two fronts: easing community problems and bridging destructive divides. This connection combines the proven effectiveness of national service for meeting community needs and the power of shared common purpose for building social cohesion. Demographic shifts make connecting the generations even more compelling: For the first time, the United States has more people over 60 than under 18. In addition, as the country’s White population grows older, the younger population is becoming increasingly diverse. In 2015, 22% of adults over 65 and 48% of youth were people of color, a gap that is likely to increase in the next decades. As intergenerational advocates Corita Brown and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld cautioned: “Those who fail to understand and address the interplay between race and age will fail to understand today’s political landscape and miss a big chance to build alliances across racial and generational divides.”
Over many decades, policymakers have encouraged intergenerational service that engages older and younger people to meet challenges facing the other’s generation, and that brings older and younger people together to address community problems (including those affecting a particular generation). In this article, the former is referred to as cross-generational and the latter as co-generational service. As described later, policies promoting cross-generational service have been only modestly implemented by public agencies and practitioners. Moreover, intentional co-generational service is a largely unexplored frontier. In addition, this field has received minimal attention from researchers.
The imperative to rebuild social cohesion among generations gives new impetus to intentionally and significantly develop both forms of intergenerational service. The divide separating young and old is narrower than others, perhaps making it easier to bridge. Yet, doing so can still be transformational. As Berkeley Professor john a. powell has explained, “only bridging can heal a world of breaking.” Building bridges through service is a multiple win, bringing generations together while also mobilizing the civilian fleet needed to solve communities’ most pressing needs.
This article is a call to action for policymakers, public agencies, community-based organizations, practitioners, and researchers to take on this challenge.
Defining Intergenerational National Service
As used in this article, the term intergenerational national service combines two concepts. The first, “national service,” refers to “civilian participation in any nongovernmental capacity, including with private for-profit organizations and nonprofit organizations … that pursues and enhances the common good and meets the needs of communities, the States, or the Nation.” Hundreds of thousands of Americans already do this each year, working to help solve social problems in their communities. National service is different from volunteerism and other types of civilian service because those in national service “commit to a term, typically greater than six months, of sustained and substantive service with an organization while earning a modest living allowance.”
The second concept, “intergenerational,” is a specific subset of national service wherein participants from different stages of life (1) engage in activities that address challenges facing the other’s generation (“cross-generational”), and/or (2) serve together to solve those and other social problems in their communities (“co-generational.”) These two types of intergenerational service are distinct but not mutually exclusive.
The periods in life when individuals are most likely able to make a significant level of personal commitment to service are when they are young, before taking on the responsibilities that come with adulthood (e.g., jobs, career, parenthood, mortgages), and later in life as they move beyond midlife responsibilities, retiring or searching for an encore. Research has shown that younger and older people are interested in making this commitment to the common good. As a result, recruiting and engaging these age groups—which include people in several “generations”—holds potential for tapping the largest talent pool for civilian service in communities.
In addition, it opens the door to meaningful intergenerational interactions that are typically hard to come by in our largely age-segregated society. As Encore.org CEO Marc Freedman and Eisner Foundation CEO Trent Stamp explained in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, this is a dramatic change from the 19th century, when every major aspect of daily life was age-integrated: “By the end of the 20th century, America had come to approximate what economics professor Andrew Scott, co-author of The 100-Year Life, describes as a state of ‘age apartheid.’”
Intergenerational National Service Benefits
National Service Overall
Studies of federal national service programs have shown that the benefits far exceed the costs invested in these programs; a recent calculation found that for every dollar of federal and match funding invested, the return to society, program members, and the government is $11.80. Last year, the bipartisan Commission on Military, National and Public Service concluded, in its final report, that national service creates “more united, civically engaged communities … [and] improved civic health.” As national service leader Shirley Sagawa has explained, “involving local residents in efforts to address challenges in their own neighborhoods can change attitudes and create sustainable solutions. When communities take leadership and are provided the resources to change their circumstances, the change can be lasting.”
National service also strengthens social cohesion by bringing different people together for a common purpose. Historian Anne Applebaum, writing in The Atlantic, drew upon her experience with peace building and conflict prevention to propose that the best way to bridge divides is to “drop the argument and change the subject.” When people come together to do something constructive, they focus on their common purpose rather than their disagreements. National service programs, Applebaum wrote, “might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.”
Intergenerational National Service
Research on intentional intergenerational service has confirmed similar benefits. The most studied cross-generational program is AARP’s Experience Corps, an evidence-based high-dosage tutoring program discussed later. A Washington University-Mathematica study found that students who had Experience Corps tutors made 60% greater gains in two critical literacy skills—sounding out words and reading comprehension—equivalent to the boost they would have gotten from being assigned to a classroom with 40% fewer children. Research by Johns Hopkins University found that referrals to principals for classroom misbehavior decreased by half in schools with Experience Corps members.
Studies about the impact of the Experience Corps program on its tutors have revealed significant gains in physical and mental well-being compared to a similar group of older people who were not tutors. Those with arthritis had less pain, and others with diabetes required fewer medications to keep their blood sugar under control. Michelle Carlson at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that participation in the Experience Corps had a positive impact on members’ cognitive functioning. Program co-founder Dr. Linda Fried wrote in The Atlantic in 2014 that most volunteers who spent 6 months in the program dramatically improved their ability to solve complex problems. Experience Corps members, she reported, felt the program dusted off the cobwebs in their brains.
In addition, a Washington University team led by Professor Nancy Morrow-Howell found that 81% of older tutors participating in the Experience Corps program reported that their views/outlook on public education had changed. An even higher percentage—86%—agreed a lot or somewhat that they were more likely to vote in support of public education. This supports the conclusion by researchers Harry R. Moody and Robert Disch that intergenerational service programs are vehicles for increasing support for public schools, raising awareness about the environment, public safety, and helping all community members live healthier lifestyles.
Studies of the larger cross-generational federal Foster Grandparent Program have documented that children in preschool classrooms with foster grandparents have increased language and literacy skills; improved reading comprehension and readiness to enter kindergarten; and improved behavior and self-esteem. There also are proven benefits for the older adults who serve as foster grandparents, including improved physical and mental health, and higher levels of life satisfaction.
Co-generational service has not been studied with similar rigor. However, experiences described by participants and evaluation data from small intergenerational program pilots show how attitudes change, understanding increases, service programs are strengthened, and communities benefit when older and younger people serve alongside each other.
- Attitudes and understanding: Older and younger people have described how serving together changed their thinking and attitudes. For 24-year-old AmeriCorps SBP member Emerson Jordan-Wood, serving on a team with an AmeriCorps member in her 70s, rebuilding homes destroyed by Houston hurricanes, was “an opportunity to break down some of my pre-existing stereotypes about older people.”
A similar shift was described by Sierra Barnes, who, as a 21-year-old just out of college, served as an AmeriCorps VISTA member with Bridge Meadows, a multigenerational affordable housing nonprofit in Oregon that supports foster families and older adults. Sierra explained in an interview with the author how that experience changed her “views about the capacity of older adults and the value of aging.”
There is relevant research about small intergenerational programs involving smaller doses of intentional interactions. Professor Maureen Tam pointed to “strong research evidence that intergenerational service-learning [programs] improve social engagement with, and understanding of, other generations.” Tam found evidence of mutual change in a college-based pilot in Hong Kong. The students in the study completed 54 hours of “community service” in senior centers (in addition to attending lectures). At the end of the program, they had developed a better understanding of the older generation and better appreciated their life experience. In addition, the older adult participants (ages 60–75) reported that the interactions with students broadened their horizons and helped them stay connected with society.
In another study, Professor Lisa Wagner and her colleague Tana Luger found significant positive change in the attitudes of younger students (ages 18–30) about older students (55 and older) who participated together in a semester-long intergenerational class at the University of San Francisco. Wagner and Luger incorporated what they considered conditions for “optimal contacts” in weekly 65-minute meetings between the older and younger students. Before and after the course, participants completed questionnaires designed to understand whether their attitudes had changed. Post-course, younger students showed “significant increases in affection, comfort, kinship, engagement and enthusiasm for older people, whereas older students’ ratings for younger adults remained stable.” In an interview with the author, Wagner explained that this finding that older adults’ attitudes did not change may have been due to the difference in questionnaire timing since older students filled out their pre-course questionnaire after the first course day, whereas younger students filled theirs out at the beginning of the semester.
- Service program effectiveness: Co-generational service has been found to increase stability and reduce program costs. Generations Incorporated (GI), a Boston-area tutoring program, combined cross- and co-generational service. Mary Gunn, who led GI for 8 years, reported that disruptive and costly turnover was reduced when older adult AmeriCorps members served alongside younger AmeriCorps VISTAs. This is consistent with research reported by AARP Senior Advisor Heather Tinsley-Fix, showing that turnover goes down in age-inclusive organizations.
Similar benefits were found in a Reading Corps program, where older adult AmeriCorps members tutor alongside others who are in their 20s and 30s. According to program director Audrey Borland, in addition to making great tutors, the older adults bring consistency for the program and the relationship with the school because they “tend to stay longer and serve multiple terms.”
A recent essay in Nonprofit Quarterly pointed out another way that programs are strengthened by intergenerational service: “When volunteers of all ages intermingle, an effective environment is created that supports the organization. Volunteers from different generations bring an eclectic blend of knowledge, skills, and experience to an organization.” This echoes insights from private-sector workforce studies. Car manufacturer BMW found that age-diverse teams, combining the assets and experience of different generations, led to increased productivity. In addition, Professor Marcie Pitts-Castouphes and colleagues, writing about a pilot project involving age-diverse work groups in health care, technology, and food manufacturing companies, suggested that viewing “age-diversity as an asset rather than a deficit contributed to innovation.”
Older and younger participants serving together share knowledge and support the team’s performance—what Tinsley-Fix referred to as knowledge spillover. Sherilyn Larkin, a 66-year-old AmeriCorps/SBP member described how being part of an intergenerational service team in Puerto Rico meant “constantly learning each other’s positions so we can all experience something different and support each other.” This was echoed by retiree Charlene Young and recent college graduate Jordan Fong, who met through serving as AmeriCorps literacy tutors with Reading Corps. Charlene and Jordan described the serendipity of crossing paths and the valuable ways they have helped each other.
- Community ownership: VISTA member Sierra Barnes described (in an interview with the author) how co-generational service affected her views about public policy: “Working alongside older adults at Bridge Meadows, lovingly called ‘elders,’ opened my eyes to the inequity of our systems regarding age and the need for age-friendly initiatives across all sectors.” As a result, Sierra came to see everyday things in a new light: “I had never before considered how our cities aren’t built for all ages. Sidewalks are cracked, making it enormously difficult for folks using walkers, canes, or wheelchairs to navigate our streets.”
A report prepared for Generations United in 1994 examined intergenerational service. In Young and Old Serving Together: Meeting Community Needs Through Intergenerational Partnerships, Tess Scannell and Angela Roberts described the “potential benefits” of this “expanding field.” When this report was revised and published digitally a few years later, the characterization of benefits as “potential” was still apt because little research had been conducted on this subset of national service. Since then, the relevant knowledge base, as described earlier, has increased but is still largely undeveloped.
Professor Matt Kaplan understood the importance of research when he was asked in 1977 whether “intergenerational programming” would “stand the test of time as an integrative human services ‘field’ rather than another fad or catchphrase.” Kaplan forecast that the likely answer would “be linked with the effectiveness of efforts to document the value and significance of intergenerational initiatives.” The studies and stories about intergenerational service recounted previously offer insights but fall short of the documentation Kaplan understood would be needed. In addition to more research about the value and significance of intergenerational service, a deeper inquiry is needed to understand the optimal components for building social cohesion. Ramping up documentation and evaluation seems essential for closing the gap between policy and practice around intergenerational service.
Federal Policy on Intergenerational Service
Over the past century, consistent with America’s strong tradition of service, Congress enacted an alphabet soup of service programs. Echoing the age segregation that emerged in the 20th century, many of these programs limited participation to defined age groups; others were age-integrated. Intergenerational service was incorporated to a small extent in the former and more significantly in the latter. However, none of the intergenerational provisions were ever funded at levels needed to reach their potential. With this chasm between policy and practice, America has not come close to realizing the vision set out by President John F. Kennedy when, two years after he asked all Americans to “ask what they could do for their country,” called for a National Service Corps that would include young people and older citizens.
Age-Siloed Service: Eligibility Based on Age
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the first national civilian service program that limited participation to a defined age group; that is, only 18- to 25-year-olds (later expanded to 17–26) were eligible to serve. Created in 1933 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to combat the Great Depression, the CCC further limited service—for a small wage plus food and shelter—to unemployed single men. Nearly six decades later, when Congress established the American Conservation and Youth Corps in 1990, the age restriction was retained, with participation limited to all young adults ages 16–25. Three years after that, Congress enacted the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), limiting eligibility to young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 (eventually raised to 26). Modeled after the Roosevelt-era CCC and the military, the NCCC began as a demonstration program to explore the possibility of using post-Cold War military resources to help address national challenges. Because Congress did not establish any age limit for becoming an NCCC team leader, the program opened the door to some intergenerational service.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Congress created three service programs in the mid-1960s limiting participation to older adults. The Foster Grandparent Program (FGP), Senior Companions, and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) were part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society anti-poverty initiatives to tap the skills, talents, and experience of older Americans. The first two provided stipends to low-income older adults. All three, which later expanded eligibility to those 55 and older, were combined as the Senior Corps in 1993 and recently renamed AmeriCorps Seniors.
One of these programs, FGP, is explicitly cross-generational. Low-income adults serve as foster grandparents in early childhood centers, schools, and other settings “to give each child attention, love, care, to soothe them when distraught, to help them in their struggles.” The adults are provided purpose and a paycheck in the form of a small hourly stipend. FGP’s informal motto—“every dollar spent twice”—captures the cycle of benefits to old and young.
Also created in this era, the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) similarly limits participation to low-income older adults. Part of the Older Americans Act of 1965, SCSEP places adults who are 55 or older into on-the-job training programs in public and nonprofit agencies. Although not generally considered “service,” SCSEP includes key elements of service programs, combining anti-poverty, workforce development, and civic engagement goals into one.
Age distinctions (though not eligibility) were incorporated in the National and Community Service Act of 1990, which aimed to “renew the ethic of civic responsibility” and “expand full-time and part-time service opportunities for all citizens, particularly youth and older Americans.” This statute distinguished between two types of national service: one by students and out-of-school youth, and one by adults aged 60 or older. The former “perform meaningful and constructive service … where the application of human talent and dedication may help to meet human, educational, linguistic, and environmental community needs, especially those relating to poverty.” The latter, named “special senior service members,” were defined as those “willing to work full-time or part-time in conjunction with a full-time national service program.”
In the Serve America Act of 2009, Congress sought to increase service by adults 55 or older, with four age-defined provisions. First, it authorized Encore Fellowships for individuals 55 or older. These 1-year stipended fellowships would enable fellows to carry out service projects in areas of national need and to transition to full- or part-time public service. Second, Congress authorized a 3-year “Silver Scholarships” pilot to “incentivize” service by older adults. Under this pilot, adults who are 55 or older and serve at least 350 hours in a year would receive a $1,000 educational award. This scholarship was modeled after the larger educational award established in 1993 for AmeriCorps members who serve at least 900 hours of service in an approved national service position. (Neither Encore Fellowships nor Silver Scholarships have ever been funded.) Third, Congress provided that eligible recipients of both Silver Scholarships and AmeriCorps Education Awards who are 55 or older (before beginning their term of service) could transfer their award to a child, foster child, or grandchild. Finally, Congress encouraged states to recommend policies to “increase service for adults age 55 or older, including how best to use such adults as sources of social capital, and how to utilize their skills and experience to address community needs.”
Beginning in the 1960s, Congress also established civilian service programs without any age restrictions. There were no upper age limits for participation in either the Peace Corps or Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Indeed, from the beginning, the Peace Corps tapped what President Kennedy described as the “reservoir of talent” of “those who have retired in the formal sense but who have many, many useful years ahead of them.” The first group of 24 VISTA members ranged in age from 21 to 71. Both programs continue to have no age restrictions.
Thirty years later, the National and Community Service Act of 1990 envisioned an age-inclusive program. Although, as mentioned earlier, this statute distinguished between young and “senior” service members, Congress further specified, in “Subtitle D,” that at least 25% of funding would go to programs engaging “special senior service participants (aged 60 and older).”
In the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, Congress encouraged the newly created AmeriCorps programs to include both age-integrated team-based and intergenerational service. Age-integrated team service was first on the list of program models eligible for funding. The act defined such a model as a community corps program that meets unmet … needs and promotes greater community unity through the use of organized teams of participants of varied social and economic backgrounds, skill levels, physical and developmental capabilities, ages, ethnic backgrounds, or genders.
In addition, intergenerational service was one of four qualification criteria for national programs eligible to receive funding:
National service programs eligible to receive assistance or approved national service positions … to establish, if consistent with the purposes of the program, an intergenerational component [emphasis added] … that combines students, out-of-school youths, and older adults as participants to provide services to address unmet human, educational, environmental or public safety needs.
Congress expanded age-integrated service in the 2009 Serve America Act. In addition to creating the age-specific initiatives described previously, this legislation included two provisions to encourage generations serving together. First, the law provided that competitive grants to service programs should be made with “an effort to allocate not less than 10 percent of the financial assistance and approved national service positions … to eligible entities proposing to carry out “encore service programs,” defining the latter as programs that involve a “significant number of participants age 55 or older” and take advantage of their skills and experiences in the design and implementation. Second, Congress added a new eligibility requirement for states to receive national service funding. Specifically, states were required to include recommendations in their state service plans for multigenerational activities and to encourage “the development of Encore service programs in the State.”
The Gap Between Policy and Practice
The preceding review of federal legislation shows how Congress has repeatedly encouraged intergenerational civilian service. Unfortunately, implementation has been limited. In many cases, Congress did not follow the authorizing legislation with funding, and executive actions have fallen short of operationalizing legislative provisions. Also, interest in developing the field of intergenerational service has been dampened by minimal attention to documentation and research.
Data about the ages of service members illustrate the gap: Despite the 2009 provision encouraging a 10% target for Encore Service Programs—that is, programs with a “significant number of participants age 55 or older” and that take advantage of their skills and experiences in the design and implementation—the overwhelming majority of participants in AmeriCorps programs have been young adults. In 2018, 84.3% of participants in AmeriCorps direct service programs (known as State and National Programs) were 29 or younger; only 5.4% were 50 or older. Although there is no age ceiling for joining the Peace Corps, the median age of Peace Corps volunteers in 2018 was 25; only 3% were 56 or older. In addition, programs in which intergenerational service is intentional (e.g., FGP) have been held back by inadequate funding.
Even with this gap between policy and practice, the potential of intergenerational service can be seen in programs where it has thrived.
Cross-Generational Service: Serving To Support Each Other
The Foster Grandparent Program is the largest cross-generational program in which older adults support children, their teachers, and caregivers. Low-income adults serve as foster grandparents in schools and community-based settings, helping children learn to read, providing one-on-one tutoring, mentoring troubled teenagers and young mothers, and caring for premature infants or children with disabilities. The age for eligibility, originally set at 65, is now 55 or older. In recent years, foster grandparents have served an average of 20 hours per week, year after year, bringing stability to the children’s lives and the programs. In return, they find purpose, connect with others, receive a modest, tax-exempt hourly stipend, and are reimbursed for some of the costs of serving.
Findings from studies (described earlier) confirming the positive impacts of this program have been reinforced by what parents, teachers, children, and foster grandparents have shared about their experiences. For example, the following comments are from recent participants in a Foster Grandparent Program in Missoula, Montana:
- Kindergarten teacher (about the foster grandparent in her class): “I know her presence has been a significant support for the kids socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. Having a second set of eyes in the classroom has been invaluable (especially watching for a few kids with specific behaviors/medical concerns).… Her flexibility and willingness to help in any capacity has provided peace of mind to me, too.”
- Parent of a 6-year-old: “I don’t know what you’re doing with my daughter, but she’s a different person! She loves to read now! She says, ‘I’m going to show Grandma Nancy how I can read.’”
- Five-year-old preschooler (about the foster grandparent in her rural classroom): “It’s nice she’s here every day.”
- Grandma Mary, who had served for 15 years as a preschool foster grandparent: “The greatest thing for me was helping children through the years in many different areas. I gave them light, positive love, joy and I helped many children to be successful. The positive for me was caring for and loving the children and helping them learn. They are coming back to thank me.” (A. Hopkins, communication to author, February 13, 2020)
Despite FGP’s effectiveness, the size of the program has been essentially frozen. When it was established in 1965, there were 10,000 foster grandparent positions, each paid an hourly stipend set at the federal minimum wage (which was then $1.40). More than 55 years later, the number of foster grandparent positions has only doubled, to 20,000, and the hourly stipend, raised to $3.00, has not kept pace with either inflation or changes in the federal minimum wage. This relative stagnation is surprising given the significant research findings around how FGP has benefited children in preschool classrooms with foster grandparents, as well as the older adults who serve.
While FGP is unique as a cross-generational federal program for older adults to help children develop, it is not the only one that connects older adults to support children. AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps, for example, is an evidence-based, high-dosage literacy tutoring model developed 20 years ago as an AmeriCorps program for older adults. Now located in 22 cities across the United States, more than 2,000 Experience Corps members, aged 50 or older, help 30,000 children in kindergarten through Grade 3 improve their reading fluency and comprehension. On average, they tutor 10–12 hours each week, some as part-time, stipended AmeriCorps members. In addition to the structured tutoring, the mentoring relationships encourage learning and confidence. When the pandemic disrupted in-person tutoring, many Experience Corps members pivoted to remote tutoring.
As summarized earlier, extensive studies of Experience Corps have shown the positive outcomes for both the children who participate in the program and the older adults who serve as tutors. As with FGP, experiences recounted by Experience Corps participants have supported the research findings:
- Parent of a child with an Experience Corps tutor: “She wasn’t reading to me at all before the tutoring. She would read ‘cat’ and ‘dog,’ only words that are so common. I was extremely worried. I really didn’t know what was wrong. Now she reads with the other kids.”
- First-grade teacher: “My Experience Corps member is incredible. She knows exactly what to do with the kids I send her. Sometimes she’ll notice something and be able to articulate it even better than I could because she’s spent time working one-on-one with a child. Having her as my own personal volunteer is making a huge difference in the academic performance of my kids. Almost every student in my class has benefited and has improved at an accelerated rate because of her.”
- Experience Corps tutor: “I have a reason for getting up in the morning, knowing that I am going to help a child. When they say, ‘Miss Bell, I need some help,’ or ‘Miss Bell, will you help me,’ it gives me a feeling that I am needed. You cannot imagine the joy that it brings me. I now have a purpose to get up in the morning, knowing that there are children waiting for me.”
Cross-generational programs also connect older and younger adults. Encore Physicians, for example, engages retired physicians as mentors to young clinicians while also helping address doctor shortages at health clinics in underserved communities. The experienced medical professionals take care of patients in the clinics and via telehealth. In addition, they mentor younger clinicians, such as nurse practitioners, during their 1-year residence—which retired Kaiser physician Dr. Ethan Daniels described as “one of the best parts of the job.”
Other programs foster meaningful intergenerational connections as younger people support older adults. Generation Tech, for instance, connects high school volunteers to teach tech skills to isolated older adults. In addition to providing transactional “geek squad”-style tech support, this program is a two-way intervention focused on mutual discovery and learning. Student volunteers are trained to develop sustained one-on-one relationships over time, through weekly visits. Co-founder Simar Chada explained that, “while I may be there to help older adults adapt to newer technology, those same older adults are able to provide me with information that I couldn’t get anywhere else. When I leave a center, I am always walking away with more knowledge and experience.”
A second example is Big & Mini, founded by college students in Austin, Texas, to combat loneliness and loss of connection. This virtual platform matches college students and older adults in meaningful, mutually beneficial conversations by video—decreasing the isolation both experience and providing mentorship support. Started as a simple Google form and landing page making matches manually via email, today Big & Mini is a robust platform with 1,500 active users across eight colleges, 14 organizations, and 25 countries. Here is how 19-year-old Daniel describes his relationship with 74-year-old Alva, with whom he talks weekly: “We had a lot of things in common but we also had a lot of interests not in common…. We were able to learn from each other’s experiences and stories enough to form what I think is a genuine friendship.”
Co-Generational Service: Serving Together to Solve Social Problems
Meaningful interactions also occur when different generations serve together, either on age-integrated teams or as part of an intergenerational cohort that comes together for training and community-building activities. The common purpose that unites these participants can be supporting the needs of each other’s generation or, more broadly, meeting a wide range of community needs. As mentioned earlier, the National and Community Service Act of 1990 envisioned intentional age-integrated service, especially for grants made under Subtitle D. This grant making to “test” national service models was the responsibility of the Commission on National and Community Service. Seven out of eight grants reported by the commission went to programs designed to engage participants across the age spectrum. The commission’s report, What You Can Do for Your Country, described five grantees that intentionally brought older and younger people together—that is, in co-generational service—addressing community problems.
In the decades since those five pilots were funded, the field of intentional co-generational service has not been developed. There are, however, oases where this has happened unintentionally, what Encore.org CEO Marc Freedman calls “naturally occurring.” The good news is that even when co-generational service is not deliberate, age diversity can lead to benefits for the individuals who serve and for the community.
Team-Based Co-Generational Service
The Georgia Peach Corps and the Urban Schools Service Corps were two of the Subtitle D programs designed with teams composed of older and younger adults. As described by the Commission on National and Community Service, the Georgia Peach Corps was a 3-year pilot to engage 100 youths, aged 17–25 and working at minimum wage, with 20 older men and women on selected public-works and human-service projects in two rural counties. The New York Times quoted the pilot’s director, Lynn Thornton, who explained that the program differs from other service projects by emphasizing “intergenerational cooperation” and socioeconomic diversity. “We’re trying to revive an old idea that goes back to Thomas Jefferson and F.D.R.,” she said, “that you can’t just be a taker, that everyone owes something back to their community.”
In the Urban Schools Service Corps (later renamed the National School and Community Corps [NSCC]), teams working to “change and strengthen schools … were assigned to some of New Jersey’s poorest inner city schools … [to] address both the educational needs in the school and the related needs of students and their families.” The teams included adults living near the school, some of whom were older adults, along with nearby college students and recent grads. NSCC founder Marty Friedman explained in an interview with the author that diverse teams—by age, gender, race, and educational level—were considered a core element of the program. Including older community members emerged naturally from local planning teams on which grandmothers participated.
Roughly 25% of the NSCC members were in their 20s, and the same percentage were 50 or older—some of whom were retired teachers and principals. As Friedman recounted, “We just wanted a set of mostly community (indeed, neighborhood) based teams of people invested in improving their local schools.” At NSCC’s peak, there were 500 team members, about half serving full time and some staying with the program for 3 or 4 years. The duration was important for developing relationships with the students and families. According to Freidman, independent evaluations of the program documented significant impact on academic performance (e.g., higher rates of homework completion, higher standardized test scores) and behavior (e.g., fewer suspensions, reduced truancy).
A more recent example of intergenerational teams illustrates how this can happen without an intentional design. SBP, a national disaster recovery organization, rebuilds homes after disasters in the United States and the Bahamas. Although SBP did not set out to recruit AmeriCorps members from different age groups, roughly 5% of those serving on teams are 50 or older, and they work alongside younger members. The experience on age-diverse teams reveals the value resulting from this integration.
As described earlier, a 24-year-old who worked with an SBP team member in her 70s found that the experience broke down his preexisting stereotypes about older adults. Another SBP member, 64-year-old Melanie Rudolph, described serving on an intergenerational team “twenty-four-seven” to rebuild homes destroyed by hurricanes:
We’ve all been so open and what we’ve shared together just bonded us, like, unbelievably. I would do anything for them, just like they would do anything for me. We’re like a well-oiled machine. You know, everybody has their gifts and skills, and we recognize that and support each other. There’s nothing like it.
Melanie’s previous experience in the Peace Corps gave her confidence that this intergenerational teamwork could forge long-lasting relationships. She had served 7 years earlier in Palau, a cluster of islands near the Philippines, and recalled,
I was 56 at the time, and the oldest in my group by a few decades. But I was used to working with younger generations, so it felt like a natural transition for me. I’m still in touch with many of the young people I met through the Peace Corps. When you’re doing that kind of service, where there is such a deep commitment, it creates a very specific kind of bond. They’re all over the world now, so we keep in touch by phone or online. We like staying up to date on each other’s lives.
Co-Generational Service Cohorts
Individual (rather than team-based) service assignments offer opportunities for participants to come together as a cohort for training, professional development, coordination, and community-building activities. When the service cohort is age-diverse, the experience can open the door for meaningful intergenerational interaction.
Three of the Subtitle D grants illustrate this approach. The Delta Service Corps placed individuals of diverse backgrounds and ages in singular community-based service organizations in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Three to five of the participants were organized to meet together weekly and carry out a group project. Each group had a mix of full-time, part-time, and “senior citizen participants,” as well as a team leader.
Fast forward to the present: Approximately 25 out of 100 members of the Stockton (CA) Service Corps (SSC) are adults 50 or older. The corps members are placed in individual assignments with five community partners to improve educational outcomes and address social inequities in Stockton. The age diversity was not deliberate; it resulted from the way one of the SSC partners recruited individuals to serve. Most of the older corps members serve individually as tutors for California Reading Corps and California Math Corps, helping young children achieve grade-level reading and math proficiency. They were recruited through targeted outreach to local churches, libraries, and community centers. By contrast, the other SSC partners recruit applicants through activities less likely to reach an older population: internal program pipelines, university outreach events, and posting online via Handshake, university career boards, and Service Year.
The full corps comes together periodically for training and professional development. SSC, supported by an Encore.org Gen2Gen Innovation Fellowship, is developing ways to bring meaningful intergenerational interactions into these gatherings. SSC’s former director, Sonali Nijhawan, explained,
By committing a year of their lives to serve as an AmeriCorps member in Stockton, our Stockton Service Corps Fellows are committing to empowering the young people they serve and the individuals they serve alongside. Service has long been a way to bring people of different backgrounds and life experiences together around one common purpose. In Stockton we are proud that our service community is committed to building a community across race, ethnicity, gender, and generations.
By investing in the development of an intergenerational corps, we are creating a unique opportunity for our Fellows to find commonality and build perspective from their cross-generational counterparts. In our first year of programming, we found that Fellows across generations would find pride and commonality in each other’s desire to serve and commitment to community—highlighting how the power of coming together under a common purpose can truly build bridges and long-lasting connection and impact.
Charlene Young, a retiree, and Jordan Fong, a recent college graduate, were both tutors in the SSC Reading Corps. Fong described how “getting to know Charlene on a personal level and understanding how she looks at things has been great. If I hear about something positive she’s doing with her students, I’ll try it out and see if it helps me, too.” For Fong, it was mutual: “We just clicked,” she said. “We help each other out.” Reading Corps Executive Director Audrey Borland recognized another benefit to having older adults in the tutoring mix: “They tend to stay longer and serve multiple terms, and that consistency is good for the students and the relationship with the school,” she explained. “Plus, they’re good at recruiting their friends and I love the feedback and guidance they give us.”
Two intentionally intergenerational national service initiatives were launched in the past year to meet community needs caused by the pandemic. The first, in Colorado, provided surge capacity for COVID-19 case investigation, contact tracing, and referrals. The state’s COVID Containment Response Corps (CCRC) has mobilized AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors (RSVP) volunteers, blending funding from both national service programs. By the end of 2020, nearly 800 national service members had served or were serving with the CCRC. In December, 28% of the active participants were AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers. This intergenerational initiative has already served more than 43,000 individuals, contacted 99% of COVID-19 cases within 24 hours, and delivered 33,904 lab results to people tested by the state lab. Intentionally connecting multiple generations was key to that success. For example, tech savvy NCCC members helped AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers learn how to use Chromebooks, Google Suite, and hotspots to serve remotely. With that support, the AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers were able to effectively reach 97% of their contact-tracing calls.
Intergenerational CCRC members working within particular regions meet virtually. To spur additional meaningful intergenerational connections, AmeriCorps members and RSVP volunteers participate in regular cohort meetings and are invited to also join small groups outside their service locations through an innovative “League of AmeriFriends.” In interviews with the author, participants in the CCRC described their experiences interacting with service members from different generations. Here’s how Kaitlin Logan, an AmeriCorps member who recently graduated from college, described her experience:
It’s changed my views drastically about interacting with people outside my age range. I’m happy to admit my huge misconception that everyone older than me was working against me is wrong. Short sighted …. They shared my beliefs about COVID … rather than a generational divide. Through a program like this you can see things shared in common regardless of different ages and where you come from.
In March 2021, a second intentionally intergenerational corps was launched by Encore.org to support vaccinating underserved populations at federally qualified health centers in Northern California. With a demonstration grant from AmeriCorps Seniors, the Encore Intergenerational Vaccine Corps is engaging retired medical professionals and older and younger lay volunteers in six counties, and developing material for other health centers to replicate this model. This demonstration project is designed to bring the medical and lay volunteers together to foster meaningful intergenerational interactions.
Five Ways to Expand Intentional Intergenerational Service to Increase Community Ownership
Intergenerational national service connects people of different ages to learn about social problems, work to solve them together, and foster meaningful interactions. This strengthens communities by engaging a windfall of human capital with complimentary skills, and bridging generational and cultural differences. Federal policies have repeatedly encouraged cross-generational service programs that engage older and younger people to meet challenges facing the other’s generation, as well as co-generational programs that bring the generations together to serve with each other. Yet, implementation has fallen short, and there has been limited research or documentation. Nevertheless, evaluations of intergenerational service programs, and participants’ experiences, point to positive outcomes for individuals who serve, those who are served, programs, and communities.
The following are five actions that leaders in all sectors at the national, state, and local levels can take to close the chasm between policy and practice, and realize the promise of intergenerational service.
- Think intergenerational. Age-siloed service is the default today, just as age segregation continues to be typical throughout America. This default was illustrated at the beginning of 2021 in proposals to meet the urgent need for COVID-19 vaccination. On January 1, Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called for enlisting retired medical professionals to administer vaccines. A few days later, University of Massachusetts leaders Dr. Michael Collins and Martin Meehan, formerly a seven-term Democratic Congressman, proposed a “vaccination corps” made up of college students and recent graduates. Both are great ideas, but as Dr. Gerald Bourne and I wrote in Newsweek, it would be even better to combine the two, bringing retired health care workers and lay volunteers of all ages together to “create an intergenerational service corps that can quickly and efficiently vaccinate millions of Americans. As described earlier, this age-integrated thinking is what Colorado did in its COVID Containment Response Corps, and it shaped the Encore Intergenerational Vaccine Corps, which operationalized the idea proposed in the Newsweek article. Recruiting and placing retired medical professionals, nursing students, and younger and older lay volunteers, the corps is working at federally qualified health centers in six Northern California counties to vaccinate people of all ages in low-income and ethnically diverse communities.
- Implement existing policies. Policies already in place encourage and enable intergenerational service—what is missing is implementation. Federal funding is needed to operationalize some of these legislative enactments, like the Encore Fellowships and Silver Scholarships authorized in the Serve America Act. Others—for example, requiring state service plans to include intergenerational components—can be implemented through executive action. One specific idea for executive action by AmeriCorps is incentivizing state service commissions to support intentional intergenerational service. Another is including intergenerational service as a criterion in notices of funding opportunity. If federal funding lags, states and the private sector could spark intergenerational programs. One foundation has shown how the two can be combined to expand national service as a pathway for young people. The Schultz Family Foundation recently created a $1 Million National Service Challenge, offering matching grants to AmeriCorps state service commissions. An example of private sector investments in intergenerational service is the Encore Fellowship Program which, with private corporate and philanthropic support, has operationalized the fellowships Congress authorized but never funded. The program has placed thousands of Encore Fellows in 25 cities to strengthen community-based organizations. Colleges could demonstrate the value of Silver Scholarships and variations (e.g., fee and credit waivers) to incentivize older adult service and add age diversity to their student body. States could encourage intergenerational service in their programs—for example adding this approach to legislation recently proposed in Massachusetts to establish a Coronavirus Recovery Corps.
- Age integrate national service programs. The recent rebranding of federal national service programs is a step toward their integration. Senior Corps (FGP, Senior Companions, and RSVP) is now named AmeriCorps Seniors. The next step is to move beyond branding to programmatic integration. Intergenerational service can be expanded by combining different AmeriCorps programs for a holistic approach to meeting community needs. For example, RSVP, NCCC teams, VISTA, and AmeriCorps state and national programs can collaborate in particular interventions—as they have done in the COVID initiatives described earlier. In addition, cross-service recruitment can call on people of all ages to serve.
- Invest in intergenerational innovation. At the turn of the 20th century, America’s innovation disrupted the country’s largely age-integrated society. As Freedman and Stamp have explained, this restructuring of society by age “was driven by well-intentioned public policies and social innovations aimed at achieving greater efficiency and solving major problems.” They point to how universal education and child labor laws led to schools putting same-age students together in classrooms. And how Social Security and mandatory retirement helped dislodge older employees from the workforce in the midst of high Depression-era unemployment. As the 21st century grapples with its unique challenges, including demographics and disunity, it is time for a new wave of innovation to upend the age-segregated society that resulted from those well-intended measures. Intergenerational national service is a good place to start. The Corporation for National and Community Service (now named AmeriCorps) is authorized by Congress to fund demonstration projects. That is how Experience Corps and other successful cross-generational programs were started; it is also making possible the co-generational Encore Intergenerational Vaccine Corps. Such grants, as well as funding by private-sector philanthropy, are needed to disrupt age-siloed national service.
- Develop a robust research agenda. Intergenerational relationships have been studied by academics and practitioners across the globe. For example, the Journal on Intergenerational Relations “publishes research on intergenerational relationships, integrating practical, theoretical, familial and policy perspectives on intergenerationality.” The Academy for Gerontology in Higher Education hosts an Intergenerational Learning Research and Community Engagement group. However, little attention has been devoted to the specific field of intergenerational service. While some cross-generational service programs (e.g., Experience Corps) have been rigorously studied, more research is needed, and the study of co-generational national service programs is uncharted terrain.
A starting point is to identify intentional and unintentional intergenerational service programs already underway. The research methodology to be applied should include measuring participants’ attitudes about each other’s generation and community problems, before and after the service experience, to reveal the extent and sustainability of change resulting from the intergenerational connections.
Comparative research could assess the efficacy of intergenerational service activities. In addition to increasing understanding, efforts like these would inform best practices for designing new intergenerational service programs.
Nothing can be done to restore the over half million lives lost to COVID-19 in our country. It is possible, however, to reduce the pandemic’s impact on future generations and rebuild the social cohesion our democracy needs to thrive.
“Community ownership” is the thread connecting the articles in this issue of the eJournal of Public Affairs. In his introductory essay, Greg Burris defines this as an internalized feeling of responsibility for the success of one’s community and everyone living in it. Intergenerational national service is an approach to turn this idea into a reality, by bringing people of different generations together for the common purpose of meeting community needs.
Federal policies developed during the past decades have encouraged national service that connects different generations. Despite the lack of wide implementation, there is ample experience showing that intergenerational service benefits participants and communities. In addition to making progress on pressing social challenges, engaging community members across the age spectrum to serve together increases understanding and empathy across generational and cultural divides. As with all forms of service, it builds a sense of responsibility for solving social problems to strengthen communities. Bridging divisions among different generations, along with other divides that separate Americans, is an essential step toward unifying our country.
We do not need to look far to realize the importance of unity to American democracy. In a memorable intergenerational moment, Amanda Gorman, our nation’s first National Youth Poet Laureate, made this point in her poem “The Hill We Climb,” delivered at the 2021 inauguration of the oldest president to be sworn into office:
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside….
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with.
Phyllis Segal is a Senior Fellow at Encore.org, where her work is all about solutions. This article is part of her focus on advancing intergenerational national service as a powerful new way to meet community needs and bridge the generational divide. Other activities on this front include co-founding Encore.org‘s Intergenerational Vaccine Corps. As Vice President of Encore.org from 2007 to 2020, Phyllis spearheaded many groundbreaking initiatives, including the Gen2Gen campaign, research to understand encore talent as a resource for meeting society’s most pressing needs, and programs to offer pathways for people in later life who want to transition to new work in nonprofits and government. She is a Trustee of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and on the Advisory Board of the Eli J. and Phyllis N. Segal Citizen Leadership Program at Brandeis University. Phyllis previously served on the Board of the Corporation for National and Community Service (appointed by President Obama); Chair of the Federal Labor Relations Authority (appointed by President Clinton); Board Chair of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; founding Legal Director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund; and in other government and nonprofit leadership positions. She earned her J.D. at Georgetown University Law Center, B.A. from the University of Michigan. Phyllis can be reached at email@example.com.