Aging and Generational Competences

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Life expectancy in the United States has increased by 30 years over the past century. We now have multigenerational families in homes, work places and other environments.

How we all relate to each other across these age differences can determine to a great extent how well we live and how well our institutions thrive.

If we start by looking at generational tendencies and the importance of generational competence, we can shape these cross-generational interactions in families and in the workplace.

We do need to be careful about stereotyping or characterizing any one person based on age alone. There is so much variability among people of the same chronological age. And please understand age and generational demographics are just a starting point to understand human interaction. Some of the important intangibles to consider: Attitudes about finances, historical or geographic influences, family norms, and the fundamental personality of a person.

Multigenerational Mental Health News reviewed an article by Michael Friedman on two major demographic trends unfolding in America the first half of this century. First, minorities will grow from 29% to 47% of the American population; and older adults, those 65 and older, will increase from 13% to 20%. This older age group will be similar in size to children and adolescents under 18 for the first time in history.

One major prejudice against the older generation is ageism. Just like overcoming racism and cultural stereotyping are goals worth pursuing, getting past the prejudice against the elderly is also worth accomplishing as we have so much to gain from those with the most life experience.

The common prejudice in our culture is that someone who is old is “over the hill,” or worse still, “done for,” as they age. In fact, you are as old as you feel, and most people over 65 still have decades of active and productive life remaining. Yes, cognitive impairment becomes more common as we age; by age 85, nearly half of adults will have significant impairment. On the other hand, that means there are 20 or more good years of potentially good and independent living for the majority of older adults to have satisfying careers and productive lives.

Aging well is very important as roles change, physical and mental abilities modify, and there is the inevitable loss of family and friends. In America we battle rather than accept death as being inescapable. This attitude can be good, but also can add to stress by being a constant distraction and fear.

The key to aging well is remaining active and involved. Being positive, creating opportunities for satisfying and meaningful relationships and activities becomes self-perpetuating at any age. Those folks of all ages who approach another person or situation with “good vibrations” will typically set off similar good responses. This behavior is accentuated as we age due to the false belief that the elderly are subject to depression and degeneration.

Aging baby boomers will probably be different as they “grow up.” These folks born between 1945 and 1963 have had important differences in experiences, expectations, and values than those who are currently in their late 60s and older, the so called “Veterans” born between 1922 and 1944. In other words, those who are already old are different than those who are about to become old.

Baby boomers are physically healthier than the generation before them and generally able to work and live independently longer. This baby boomer generation has attitudes and expectations which are different than their parents, including the expectations of happiness. How this growing segment of the population will age is a chapter which will unfold over the next decades.

Generational competencies have become a popular subject as our Veterans age out and the Baby Boomers replace them in the work force and retirement activities. Veterans have the reputation of being stable, hardworking, and employed in the same corporation for decades. They respect institutions and respond well to a directive leadership style. Civic pride is important and change can be difficult.

The X-ers, those born between 1964 and 1979, came of age during the economic hardships of the 1970s and 1980s. Watergate, the Challenger disaster, terrorism and the birth of the computer age have shaped their view of the world. Most came from a two-parent working family and learned to be independent after school at home, playing computer games and surfing the web. Their attention spans shortened and instant gratification became the norm. One can only speculate as to how the X-ers will age and adapt to the changing world.

One very good characteristic of the X-ers is their ability to manage themselves. This skill was cultivated after school with the responsibility to care for themselves, do their homework, and start dinner or complete other household chores. The flip side of this independent streak? This group rebels against micromanagement.

The newest and youngest demographic group are the Nexters born between 1980 and 2000. Perhaps the most travelled, and global in outlook, many are bilingual and forthright. This group shares what is on their minds. They are action-oriented and positive. How they will navigate the world as we all become more intertwined and interdependent is anyone’s guess.

Will the Nexters be empathetic to the Baby Boomers as they all grow older? Will the Nexters be self-centered or realize that they too might benefit from the experience of others?

We have a complex aging society with stereotyped cohorts based on year of birth. How we age and react to aging is an ongoing drama.

These interactions are important since a great extent our success as individuals and as a society depends on how well we understand each other within and between age groups.

Being competent, alert and accommodating to our differences will bring much more success to help all of us live longer, happier, and healthier lives.

Dr. Allen Weiss, CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System, is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

NCH Healthcare System

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