It’s up to baby boomers to bring back our lost sense of community
Theoldest of the baby boomer generation are turning 73 this year. They have been pioneers all the way through their lives, creating a different kind of expectation and really shaping society in lots of ways. And while other generations have talked about this notion of hitting 70 and just ‘disappearing’, or feeling invisible in society, I don’t think the baby boomers are going to put up with that sort of nonsense.
They’re not about to ‘go quietly’.
They are a big generation who have always expected to have their voice heard, and they will continue to insist on that. Because now the expectation is that you’ll continue to contribute to society well into your 70s and 80s, and in some cases, even into your 90s.
That doesn’t necessarily mean working. But it certainly doesn’t mean retiring either. Instead they talk about refocusing – and I think that’s a really nice word for it. It might be volunteering at the local school to help with slow readers, or working in a men’s shed, or even taking part in educational activities like U3A. And they’re becoming more engaged and more active in things like community gardens, community choirs, book clubs, all these things that feed the life of a local community.
They’re looking to actively volunteer, use their knowledge and life experiences to find new spheres of influence in society. I think that’s a terrific example to set for the generations to come – to realise that growing old is not equivalent to having one foot in the grave.
They are full of energy and optimism, and they’re saying of themselves: ‘We are a much younger generation at our age than our parents were at the same age, we look younger, we dress younger, we feel younger, we eat better, we’re fitter’. And all that is true, of course: they are all those things.
As our tribal elders, I believe the boomers have a responsibility for establishing the sort of tone of our society – and in particular, when it comes to maintaining social cohesion in local neighbourhoods and communities, and really looking out for the problems of social isolation.
Why? I believe it’s our older generations who have a clearer sense of what kind of society we’d like to be, and more time, more wisdom and more life experience to impart.
It’s our older generations who have a clearer sense of what kind of society we’d like to be, and more time, more wisdom and more life experience to impart.
As the older generation, we have a particular responsibility in nurturing the life of our local neighbourhoods and communities and therefore helping to shape the kind of society we’ll become in the future. Because it’s older people who are more likely to resist addiction to information technology, for example, and to smile and say hello to people they pass on the street and do all those things that make a good community.
After all, that’s how their own experience has taught them to behave – they grew up at a time when there was more emphasis on the idea of stable and cohesive local neighbourhoods – a time when “we don’t know our neighbours” would have been an unthinkable thing to say. Of course, their own childhood was very different from today’s, with far fewer distractions – no internet, no personal computers, no smartphones.
Also, they grew up at a time when there were more kids around because there was a baby boom going on. There were more stay-at-home parents mothers. Now, of course, we’ve had a gender revolution which has basically swept that model away.
But many older people look back and say, well actually we were the beneficiaries of having mum at home when we got home from school. The kids were all playing in the street and they weren’t all at the childcare centre. There were very few cars, people walked a lot – passing each other in the streets – and they caught public transport more. And that means they experienced a stronger sense of belonging to a community.
So they think – and in fact, even younger people looking back on their own childhoods also say – that we seem to have lost something in the life of the neighbourhood. We seem to have become more individualistic, more competitive, more materialistic, busier, and just have less time and energy to devote to nurturing the life of the street, and local neighbourhoods.
Of course, many other things about society were worse back then – we really needed the social and cultural revolutions of the second half of the 20th century, but older people generally say that society has really lost something of value.
And so it’s often those people who are throwing their weight behind any initiatives that foster that sense of social connection. At a more reflective stage of their lives, later on, they’re more likely to be prepared to do something about trying to rebuild that neighbourhood life – for example, by addressing the problems of social isolation with things like neighbourhood drinks, a picnic-in-the-park luncheon, community events and so forth.
That’s not to say they’re against information technology, by any means. They’re typically quite avid users of the internet and especially Facebook, which can be a bit of a lifeline for them for keeping in touch with what’s going on in the world and with their extended families.
They’re just not addicted to it, like some younger generations.
They enjoy the convenience of IT, but they can see how it has changed us over time, and why it’s important to still have establish and nurture personal face-to-face connections, offline. They know that being socially isolated is really quite hazardous. We need to belong. Human beings are genetically programmed to be social creatures – to live in herds and tribes, in families and communities. We are a social species.
Now there’s so much research emerging about what happens to us when we lose that social cohesion, we can’t deny the negative health consequences for people who experience social isolation. The obvious ones being mental health (especially anxiety and depression), but now we know it also leads to physical health consequences like hypertension, inflammation, and cognitive decline.
We also know that people who are socially isolated are more likely to be sleep deprived, more likely to smoke, and are less likely to seek regular consultations with health professionals. They’re also more likely to become addicted to technology in a negative way – not as a lifeline or form of connection to others.
So I think it’s important for us to recognise that looking after your health includes being connected with local communities, and everyone else’s health does too. The health of us all depends on building healthy, inclusive and connected communities that we can belong to.
The health of us all depends on building healthy, inclusive and connected communities that we can belong to.
And that’s something the older generation knows a thing or two about. So I think we will see a quiet revolution led by them towards reinstating this community centred life for the betterment of us all, and many generations to come.