Intergenerational learning is an untapped human potential

A guitar is thumping. Percussion instruments are clicking. Words are flowing fast and furious. And twelve 70 and 80 year olds near Miami, Florida are nodding their heads and laughing along with the beats.

They’re attending a session on understanding rap music led by Jose Hurtado, a young musician who teaches for Mind & Melody, a Florida-based non-profit that teaches music lessons, primarily for seniors, to keep them cognitively, creatively and socially active.

By engaging with rap, participants understand Jose Hurtado better as a person. "Rap is his thing," says Lauren Koff, Mind & Melody’s co-founder and VP. And by sharing his beloved genre with seniors, Hurtado is giving the older generation tools to understand younger people.

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For the seniors who participate, the interaction with younger generations seems to turn back time. One woman started off her music class by announcing to everyone, "I’m an old lady. I’m in my 60s." After some time with Mind & Melody, she changed to, "I’m an old lady. I’m in my 40s." Then, towards the end of the session, she was suddenly in her 20s. Intergenerational socialisation, it seems, was powerful enough to change the way she felt about herself.

But these are not just fun and joyous sessions in a handful of senior homes in South Florida. These music lessons do not just bring personal fulfillment, they tap into the human potential that is right in front of us every day as generations interact.

Too often, this human potential goes untapped. Heaps of learning can take place from one generation to another, but our lives and professional potential are left completely untapped because we live increasingly age-segregated lives. That should change. Because the truth is, we’re sitting on a goldmine. When generations begin to communicate and learn from each other, the results are astounding. Perceptions begin to change. Emotional intelligence blossoms. Knowledge gets preserved. In some cases, even profits even roll in.

Read: Are we suffering from a perfectionism epidemic?

Overcoming barriers to intergenerational learning

But there are barriers to intergenerational learning. "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," writes Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe. This is especially true at start-ups, where the lifestyle is more suited to young, responsibility-free professionals. Not only that, but our preferred communication methods create barriers. Younger people are often the first to adopt each new social media platform, which means they aren’t bumping into older generations there.

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No matter the platform, learning to communicate across generations takes effort. But we can take a cue from Jose Hurtado and other professional musicians. For each session, they have honed a valuable skill through their intergenerational interactions.

When they prepare to lead a music class at a facility for seniors, they have to take a musical concept and break it down into its basic elements, and consider thinking about what would most the interest the generation they are working with would be most interested in. It’s an exercise in knowing your audience and communicating technical information in an accessible, actionable way. Lauren Koff, Mind & Melody’s co-founder and VP, points out how valuable this is for many situations: "If you can’t break it down for the layperson, you’re screwed."

For Hurtado, breaking rap music down for the layperson meant starting with the idea of overcoming struggle - something everyone can relate to. "I already came into it with the knowledge that hip hop isn’t particularly a favourite genre of the older generation," he says. But by focusing on the 'struggle' angle he impressed upon the participants that hip hop is about "overcoming struggle and expressing yourself freely, and that turned them on to the idea of listening more".

Not just for non-profits

Intergenerational socialisation isn’t just for nonprofits, though. It can be good for the bottom line. The Vecino Group, a mission-driven real estate developer based in Springfield, Missouri, is set to open a 50-unit intergenerational housing complex in St. Louis this April.

Stacy Jurado Miller, Vecino Group’s Chief Mission Officer, believes that while an intergenerational lifestyle might not be a standard amenity like a swimming pool, it adds value to the living situation. It creates vital human connections.

Read: How mentoring could help you fulfil your potential

Their new 50-unit housing complex - called “Intrada” and set to open this April - not only facilitates an intergenerational lifestyle, it also meets two big needs.  

  • Need one. Seniors in St. Louis needed housing and tend to be isolated. They are out of the workplace and don’t have those daily interactions they used to, notes Miller.
  • Need two. Young adults aging out of foster care need support.

In the US, kids who age out of foster care are far more likely to become homeless, incarcerated or pregnant. "You ask kids from the worst circumstances to do what kids from the best circumstances have trouble doin - becoming autonomous," says Miller.

Inspired by these sad statistics, the Vecino Group began planning a housing complex where 20 per cent of the units are reserved for youth aging out of foster care - giving them a stable home and network of support, including an on-site caseworker. It’s a mission that even the most hard-nosed economist can see the value of: if these young adults are not in trouble, they will be able to contribute more to the economy.

To promote intergenerational interactions, Vecino built a library with books, newspapers, iPads and laptops. Miller sees this free technology naturally leading older people to seek young adults’ expertise. Vecino also added a communal kitchen, where Miller envisions the older generation offering their expertise to young adults who might be learning to cook. Miller hopes these communal spaces will be the starting points for close bonds between generations.

Incentivising intergenerational learning in the workplace

The transience of our work lives is not going to change. When it comes to business plans, most companies have a quarter-to-quarter outlook, not generation-to-generation. With an average tenure of three years, many CEOs do not even want to make the kinds of investments that cost them money up front but pay off over the long term. Meaning you have to incentivise and nudge companies to use this untapped resource.

Lloyd E. Shefsky, author of the book, Visionarie$ Are Made Not Born, notes that we’ve developed systems for recruiting and retaining talent. Why not develop systems to incentivise intergenerational learning in our workplaces so that it’s not just accidental, but rather expected?

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There is no one-size-fits-all incentive plan. But one key element needs to be present, says Shefsky: ask! Companies need to instill a culture that encourages employees to ask for intergenerational learning. Whether it is through a skilled facilitator at an off-site, or training on asking good questions, or setting up organisation-wide competition on unearthing stories from another generation, a system of initiatives should be set in place to make learning inter-generationally a habit.

And, by definition, intergenerational learning should go both ways. The younger (or newer) generation teaching the older (longer-term) generation happened at Underwriters Laboratories, the world’s largest independent safety testing organisation. Shefsky says that when changes to their industry led UL to create a for-profit orientation in 2007, it was the then new CEO, Keith Williams, a newcomer who led the long-term staff to navigate from literally non-profit goals to profit orientation.

In these intergenerational exchanges, storytelling must be a key element. Shefsky recommends setting aside time for this to happen, assigning someone to facilitate the intergenerational storytelling, so that participants are not asking, "Hey, Grandpa tell me everything you know." The goal of intergenerational storytelling in an organisation, says Shefsky, is always to learn. A facilitator can help capture the stories and drive home the lessons those stories illustrate. And then those stories can be preserved for those who might never meet the generation that shared them, making sure this human potential does notnever goes untapped.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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