Social connections are shown to be one of the strongest drivers of wellbeing and are essential for us to thrive. They are the building blocks of social capital – the strength of relationships and trust on individual, community and national levels that hold societies together and underpin economic growth and future wellbeing.
Yet, in the UK, we live in one of the most age-segregated countries in the world.
To help address this disconnect, new body Intergenerational England plans to build the evidence of how intergenerational practice can support wellbeing across our lives.
Ahead of its launch, Co-founder Emily Abbott and our Senior Civil Society Lead Ingrid Abreu Scherer explore more about the possible benefits of intergenerational approaches and how to grow our understanding of what works.
The challenge of age-segregation
Lack of intergenerational connection may be contributing to some of our greatest wellbeing challenges – polarisation, loneliness, anxiety and poor health, ageism, lack of belonging and social trust, and even the housing crisis.
In its report on Healing the Intergenerational Divide, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration concluded that “a society in which different generations enjoy stronger, more meaningful connections with one another will reduce loneliness and enhance wellbeing across the age spectrum, while building the social foundations for a better, more understanding politics.”
This challenge underpins the mission of Intergenerational England, a new body that has emerged from the work of Intergenerational Music Making, bringing together a coalition of public, private and third sector organisations to support intergenerational practice and policy.
But what evidence do we need to give confidence about the effectiveness of intergenerational approaches?
Building the evidence base
Designing good policies requires stronger and clearer evidence for the potential benefits of intergenerational approaches, especially across a range of contexts and for all age groups.
In the first instance, we must clarify the idea and concepts of intergenerational practice, to ensure it captures those activities which people might not think to label as such. It’s likely that people are delivering support across generations – such as through housing schemes, social integration projects, or mentoring – without calling it that. This will allow us to map out and bring together evidence which might otherwise be hidden behind specific terminology.
We also need to bring together the existing evidence to build a theory of change of how and why intergenerational practice works. This involves looking across a range of outcomes that support wellbeing – good health, work and skills, relationships and social cohesion – and pulling out the mechanisms by which an intergenerational approach can lead to change. This would also highlight the barriers and enablers to impact, and identify the individuals and groups who could benefit but are currently missing out.
Crucially, this is an opportunity to explore the economic impact and social value of intergenerational practice. Intergenerational approaches have the potential to improve a range of important outcomes – including social cohesion, community resilience, community involvement, and cross-sector working. This makes their potential value wide reaching, especially in the context of early intervention and improving life trajectories.
Invisible middle age
Something that stands out of the existing literature is the lack of evidence on how intergenerational approaches can support people in middle age. More often, intergenerational practice has focused on activities that bring older people together with children or adolescents. But we know that it’s in middle life when our wellbeing is particularly at risk.
Across the population, people in their 60s and 70s have the highest wellbeing. Overall wellbeing is lowest in those aged 40-54, while anxiety is highest for those in their early 20s, remaining high into middle age. Even people over 90 report being happier than those in middle age, though they also (along with teenagers) experience the lowest levels of feeling the things they do in life are worthwhile.
Figure: Average wellbeing at different ages, Annual Population Survey (April 2022 – March 2023). The graphs show Life Satisfaction, Happiness, Worthwhile (the higher the level, the more positive) and Anxiety (for this measure higher levels are negative). The graphs illustrate a zoomed in version of the entire scale.
The wellbeing data can help us both to target intergenerational practice, and to design activities which make the most of different generations’ motivations and interests.
Over the coming months, Intergenerational England will bring together expertise and resources from organisations dedicated to supporting the health, education, wellbeing, and housing needs of people of all ages across the nation. Through a collaborative approach and cross-sector partnerships, Intergenerational England has the potential to drive systemic change, influence policies, and advocate for the wellbeing of all generations.
If you would like to get involved in their development, please contact Intergenerational England.