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Ideas

What ‘age segregation’ does to America

From grade schools to senior villages, we now spend much of our lives on separate generational islands. Can we reverse the trend?

Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe

As summer draws to a close, we prepare for some obvious changes: shorter days, cooler temperatures, a significant drop in ice cream consumption. But another change takes place as well, something whose consequences most of us don’t ordinarily think about. Grown-ups return to work, where they’ll toil alongside other working-age people. Children go back to their schools, neatly separated by grade. Millions of young adults will pack their bags for college, where they’ll live and work almost exclusively with their exact peers.

In other words, we’ll be sorting ourselves out by how old we are.

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This may feel like the natural order of things, with multigenerational family vacations and teenage jobs a brief summer exception. But for a number of sociologists and other researchers, it reflects a reality about American life that is cause for worry: Our society, they say, 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. 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.

On some level age segregation makes sense: People of different ages do tend to want some different things. College students want to stay up late and pair off with each other; seniors understandably crave peace and quiet. But it also has costs: It 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.

The research on age segregation in modern America is still relatively young, but it has attracted interest as part of a broader trend in the social sciences. Increasingly, said Richelle Winkler, a demographer at Michigan Technological University, researchers are taking inspiration from groundbreaking work on racial segregation, and looking at the unseen costs of divisions in society based income and educational attainment. Winkler’s research shows that some parts of the country are segregated by age in much the same way other parts are segregated by race or ethnicity.

Though age segregation is the product of trends with roots more than a century deep, there’s some reason to believe it can also be turned back. When you consider that people are staying healthy and active longer than ever, there’s an opportunity for the young and the old to start mixing together more—and some advocates of so-called intergenerational integration are already trying to make this happen. In their vision of society, age does not have to be obscured or treated as insignificant. On the contrary, they suggest, we should recognize it, but not let it keep us apart.

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Overall, Winkler found that young and old people in the US were segregated to a similar extent as Hispanics and whites.

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It may sound strange to us now, but until the late 19th century, according to historian Howard Chudacoff, age wasn’t such a defining fact about people’s lives. A professor at Brown University and the author of the book “How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture,” Chudacoff found that for most of the country’s history, people of different ages tended to mingle: Families were bigger, generations often worked side by side, and kids and adults got their entertainment at the same county fairs. Schoolchildren, meanwhile, were often assigned to classes based on how much they knew rather than when they were born.

All that changed with the Industrial Revolution. Child labor laws kept children out of dangerous factory jobs; older people were also deemed badly suited for new kinds of physically demanding work. Society began to divide people up into distinct stages. “Standardization spilled over into many different facets of life,” Chudacoff says, including the way people thought about the passage of time. Schools introduced so-called age-batching; birthdays became a bigger deal. In health care, pediatrics and gerontology broke off from the rest of medicine.

Today we divide people into generations and micro-generations almost obsessively, spending energy and marketing dollars trying to understand how millennials are constitutionally distinct from Gen-Xers. In dividing everybody into categories—tweens, thirtysomethings, senior citizens—our society implicitly treats age as a force that separates us.

These divisions might sound merely cultural, but research is starting to find that they’re carving deep structural grooves in society. Winkler first noticed the effects while working on a research project in Crow Wing County, Minn., which was being transformed by a stream of upper-middle-class retirees moving to the region for its natural amenities. In a sense, this looked like a good thing. The median household income in Crow Wing had doubled between 1999 and 2008. But when Winkler took a closer look, she noticed a stark division emerging: All of Crow Wing’s new residents, it turned out, were settling in lakeside communities at a remove from the young—and mostly poor—people who lived in its cities just a few miles away. “The types of things that resources were getting put into were really being shaped by the fact that these two different age groups had very different interests,” Winkler said, “and lived very separately.” A new medical facility boasted that it could get heart attack victims to an operating table in record time, while “younger people complained that they couldn’t find any doctors for reproductive health care.”

Winkler set out to quantify the phenomenon across the country, using census data collected between 1990 and 2010. Overall, she found that young people and old people in the United States were segregated to a similar extent as Hispanics and whites.

Some of her findings were no surprise. Florida is very age-segregated, as are many college towns. But things became less straightforward as Winkler zoomed in on “micro-segregation” at the level of individual neighborhoods and blocks, the kind that affects who individuals interact with. turned out, Winkler said, “it’s not just about the median age...it’s about how mixed people are. For instance, New England is a fairly old [population], but people are mixed together pretty well here. Whereas the Great Plains states are also old, but more segregated at the micro level.”

Among the broad societal effects that age segregation can have, experts say, is ageism, with young people regarding senior citizens as alien or feeble, and older folks dismissing younger generations as untrustworthy hooligans. “If you don’t have places where people can connect, if you have institutions that are focused on different age groups,” said Nancy Henkin, executive director of Temple University’s Intergenerational Center, an organization that promotes age-mixing, the result can be “negative stereotypes and people feeling isolated from each other.” This hurts both sides. Studies have shown that seniors in retirement homes benefit when they spend time reading to children and playing with them, while young people are given the chance to absorb wisdom and life experience.

Age segregation can even have costs among more closely linked groups. A study by husband and wife anthropologists Beatrice and John Whiting looked at age-mixing among children in six different cultures, and found that older kids who spent time with younger ones learned to be nurturing, while the younger ones learned valuable lessons about how to be part of a system where they were less dominant. Kids who only played with their exact peers, on the other hand, learned to be competitive.

“We have a lot to learn from people who are in different phases of life than us,” said Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California Santa Cruz who has studied age segregation for many years.

Rogoff said she is particularly concerned about kids in modern America. People “think of children as having a whole different life than adults,” she said, “but that’s not necessary, or even a common way for children to grow up.” One study, conducted by University of Arizona anthropologist Alice Schlegel, looked at 186 pre-industrial cultures around the world and compared them based on the amount of interaction kids had with adults outside their family. Schlegel concluded that “age segregation was related to features of antisocial behavior and to socialization for competitiveness and aggressiveness.”

Rogoff, for her part, has compared the relationship between kids and adults living in West Newton and the Guatemalan town of San Pedro. She found that the Guatemalan children spent a lot more time around adults who were doing work, and frequently emulated work in their pretend-play—for instance, making imaginary tortillas out of dirt. In West Newton, Rogoff said, children seldom saw adults working, and time spent with parents was more often devoted to “child-focused activities” and conversations about “child-related topics.” “We’ve overdone it,” Rogoff said. “We wanted to protect kids from working in factories 100 years ago...but we have excluded so much from the life of the community that they don’t feel like they have anything to contribute, and they don’t have as much opportunity to learn.”

Then there are the less tangible benefits we get from sharing in the energy of a different generation. For Chudacoff, the historian from Brown, spending time around young people in his capacity as a professor has allowed the 71-year-old to forget about his own age a bit and avoid becoming detached from contemporary life. “I have the advantage of living under a delusion,” Chudacoff joked.

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Though there’s no major movement back toward educating kids in mixed age groups, and senior communities are likely to keep flourishing, there are some imaginative experiments in creating new kinds of physical spaces where the young and the old can coexist. One intriguing trend has seen retirement communities being built near college campuses—Lasell Village in Newton is one example—and allowing seniors to attend lectures and events alongside students. On the flip side, Hebrew SeniorLife, which provides elder care throughout the Boston area, has built a K-8 school in the middle of a retirement community in Dedham.

Perhaps the most organized efforts have come from the Intergenerational Center at Temple, which opened in 1979 with the mission of connecting older people with youth. More recently the center has begun embedding specialists in communities around the country to help systematically bring together different age groups. They now have 23 pilot programs in eight states; according to recent reports, they’ve helped raise students’ grades in some places, and have been particularly helpful to seniors, who report feeling less isolated and an increased sense of purpose.

As these scattered efforts at age integration continue, it’s worth remembering that the country will also be changing in important ways that affect how the generations mix. Already, the aging of the baby boomers has resulted in more gray hair at rock concerts, athletic competitions, and other activities once viewed as the purview of the young. Meanwhile, data show that in the wake of the recession, there’s been an uptick in multigenerational households, driven largely by young adults staying under their parents’ roofs. It may be only a slight reversal of the long-term phenomenon—but it’s not a leap to imagine that as our relationship to age evolves, American attitudes will also evolve along with it, perhaps even reverting to the days when people’s lives were less strictly divided into acts, and the length of time they’d been around was less important than the distance they’d traveled.

Where do the generations live apart?

On the map below, the darker squares show that that the Great Plains and Florida have a higher “dissimilarity index,” meaning they are more age-segregated, while lighter squares show New England is more integrated.

SOURCE: US Census; Map: Richelle Winkler, Michigan Technological University; and Roz Klaas, The Applied Population Laboratory, University of Wisconsin

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail leon.neyfakh@globe.com.
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