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Age Integration and Age Segregation - Advantages And Disadvantages Of Age Integration

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When age barriers that keep older people from productive activity are removed, both society and old people benefit. Social life is enriched by elders' talents, wisdom, and expertise. In turn, elders enjoy the esteem and well-being that come from contributing to society. There are demonstrated health benefits of active participation in social life.

Both older and younger age groups can benefit from reciprocal socialization and learning. In the year 2000, there is every indication that technology will continue to develop, and more and more aspects of life will require use of computerized systems. Young people know this new technology through both formal instruction and play. Many older people have had little experience with computers. The young can teach their elders this new skill. They can also expose older people to new ways of thinking, or get them interested again in an issue that they once cared about passionately. Peter Uhlenberg notes that society benefits when its young learn the importance of giving to others, and service to elders would be an important way to accomplish this. The elders, of course, can pass on the benefit of their life experience. Current examples include retired businesspeople who provide expert assistance to small businesses, organization-based groups of retirees who take on particular community service projects, and mentoring programs that pair "grandparents" with youngsters. As older people pass on their wisdom and become known as individuals to younger people, ageist stereotypes are apt to lessen. When biases against older people are diminished, it will free them to make many more important contributions to society.

As people of different ages work, learn, and enjoy themselves side by side, this fosters solidarity across the generations, which can be important for policy making. As the baby boom cohort ages, it is clear that they will be a tremendous burden on younger people unless age integration gives elders the chance to help minimize that burden (Riley and Riley, 2000).

If age integration means that we no longer have to have our activities defined by age, then older people can participate more fully in all aspects of life and people can cut back on paid work whenever their family demands are greatest. A more age-integrated life course could address work-family conflict across the socioeconomic spectrum. For example, if people were no longer expected to get all or most of their education when they were young, then poor teenage mothers (and their children) might not be fated to forever trying to "catch up" (Loscocco).

Yet there are also disadvantages to a more age-integrated model of social life. One obstacle is the amount of change that such a trend brings with it. Many people resist change, feeling more comfortable leaving things the way they are. Some would surely be upset by changes that seemed to force them into or out of particular life roles. Those who have the most to gain from an age-graded life course might put up barriers to further movement toward an age-integrated society.

Diversity of any kind often brings tensions. People of different ages have been reared differently, and have lived through different historical forces and fads that have shaped them. People often hold tightly to age-based values, passions, and ideals. They may not be especially interested in learning about new perspectives or ways of doing things. Thus bringing age groups with differing perspectives together may cause conflicts that are absent in same-age structures and groups.

Nor are different generations apt to readily share resources or to modify the current generational contract in which those in the middle years support older cohorts with the promise that younger generations will support them. The economist Lester Thurow warns that age may supplant class as a basis of conflict in U.S. society in the third millennium. It may cost younger age groups too much to pay for programs that benefit the oldest members of society. This problem will be greatest during the years when the baby boom generation reaches its latest years. Still, as of the year 2000, the "age wars" that were predicted by some economists have not materialized (Foner). Young and middle-aged people have not challenged policies that appear to benefit the growing numbers of older people at the expense of other age groups. Foner contends that this is partly because there are demonstrated economic benefits to younger family members when their elders are protected or enriched by public policy. Also, aging is inevitable, so people are reluctant to challenge a program that they know they will need someday.

Serious age integration would require a fundamental shift in standard of living and social values. In the United States, for example, a premium is placed on productivity and material rewards. Economic institutions dominate all others. People would have to be willing to make do with less and companies would have to restructure reward systems. These appear to be daunting obstacles. Yet there is evidence in the year 2000 that many people want more simplicity and greater balance in their lives (see Loscocco for citations). Similarly, many more companies are beginning to accommodate people who do not conform to traditional work patterns that require employees to place work time above all else.

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