When the 2022 Grammy Awards were held last week, Lady Gaga performed a moving tribute to her duet partner Tony Bennett. Their record “Love for Sale” won the Grammy for best traditional pop vocal album and engineered (nonclassical) album, and was up for album of the year. Bennett and Gaga were born 59 years apart, but together they swing. Their latest debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart, an unprecedented 59 years after Bennett achieved the same success with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and nearly a decade after the artists came together for their first hit project, “Cheek to Cheek.”
As a pair, Bennett and Gaga accomplish something neither individual — or generation — could do alone. In addition to lending new life to a set of Cole Porter standards, they give new hope to those suffering, as Bennett is now, from Alzheimer’s. Just as important, Bennett and Gaga offer a shining illustration of an emerging cultural shift. In the face of longstanding ageist stereotypes and zero-sum characterizations of generations at each other’s throats, they illuminate the power of cross-generational connection and collaboration.
Bennett and Gaga’s duet flips the script on a longstanding pattern at the border of culture and aging. For much of the past half-century, scholars and observers have called out depictions of older adults in cultural products — TV, music, ads, movies — as overly stereotypical, a poor representation of the complexity of the actual lives and capacities of older people. “Love for Sale,” however, together with a whole new crop of creative collaborations, does just the opposite, leading the way with aspirational illustrations of the value and contributions not just of older people, but of generations joining forces for mutual benefit and the greater good.
In short, something is in the air— and on the air, nowhere more noticeably than on television.
Consider “Hacks,” an HBO show about bridging the generational divide that has been both a commercial and critical hit. It won three Emmys and the Golden Globe for best comedy series, beating out Apple TV’s “Ted Lasso.” Described as a “love story” in the guise of a “hate story,” the show unites a 25-year-old comedy writer (played by Hannah Einbinder) and a seventy-something standup comedian (Jean Smart) facing career-ending crises.
Forced together by their agent and with nowhere else to turn, the pair eventually overcome their own prickly personalities and generational hostility to find mutual affection and professional salvation. It’s another tale of old and young doing together what neither could do alone.
“Hacks” is not the only award-nominated show this year to highlight the best of older and younger generations working together. Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” and the French series “Lupin,” on Netflix, brought in both large audiences and critical recognition while connecting older and younger characters — across age and race — to solve crimes and pursue justice.
The recent Oscars, meanwhile, have been awash in films about intergenerational connection. Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” was nominated for seven Academy Awards this year, including best supporting actress for Judi Dench and best supporting actor for Ciaran Hinds, who play wise and loving grandparents in the drama. Their roles recall last year’s best supporting actress winner: Yuh-Jung Youn, the quirky grandmother in “Minari.”
This year’s best documentary Oscar went to “Summer of Soul.” One of that film’s most indelible moments features a cross-generational duet between a young Mavis Staples and her mentor Mahalia Jackson, a musical pairing every bit as inspired and inspiring as the Bennett-Gaga collaboration.
The high-profile pattern extends beyond today’s music, TV, and movies. One of the past year’s breakthrough podcasts, “70 Over 70,″ features the 41-year-old host Max Linsky interviewing older people, including the 99-year-old Norman Lear and 91-year-old labor leader and social activist Dolores Huerta. A theme throughout a number of the podcast’s conversations: the promise of generations coming together.
Generational collaboration is in the air in dance, art, and theater, too, and it’s worth celebrating. Even more important, these collaborations come just in time. New research from the Stanford Center on Longevity shows that America in 2022 is arguably one of the most age-diverse societies we’ve ever known. A quarter of the population today is under 20, a quarter is over 60, and the remaining half are in between. For the first time, there are roughly the same number of people at every age, from birth to 70.
But this timely shift in the zeitgeist brings with it a challenge: Can we realize on the ground what’s taking shape in the air?
For much of the past century, our limiting cultural tropes about aging and generational relations have been mirrored by the abject age segregation of society: arrangements that cluster young people in schools, middle-aged people in workplaces, and older people in retirement communities, senior centers, and nursing homes.
But here, too, there’s reason for optimism. A rising generation of social innovators has started to forge groundbreaking new models — such as the MIT-incubated intergenerational home-sharing platform Nesterly — that are as creative in bringing the generations together as older models, like age-restricted retirement communities, were in splitting them apart.
What’s needed now are communities willing to cultivate a critical mass of age-integrating innovations so people all across the life course can find proximity and shared purpose in the course of daily life. Communities that can realize abundant opportunities to live together, work together, learn together, and come together to tackle pressing problems that everyone has a stake in solving.
It’s not culture or demography that are holding back a better experience of aging right now; it’s the organization of everyday life. The stakes involved in rectifying this situation are profound: We have a chance to make the most of the age and cultural diversity that’s already an indelible feature of contemporary life and is destined to be a hallmark of the 21st century.
For a sense of what the payoff could be, look no further than Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett’s deeply moving rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” nominated for a best music video Grammy. They make the promise of the song’s title palpable, revealing cross-generational connection to be so much more than a strategy to avoid strife between old and young, or even a new route to productivity.
They show us a vast potential source of love and joy.
Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org, is the author of “How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.”