We don’t talk anymore

By: David Sinclair

This week I’ve been skimming through an ILC report from 2008 on The State of Intergenerational Relations Today. We highlighted that social contact can have a greater impact on mental wellbeing than health status. Yet we also suggested that the majority of the population observe communication problems between different generations, Two thirds of survey respondents agreed that old and young people today live in separate worlds.

We know social contact is good for us, yet we have seemingly been growing apart both spatially and in terms of social attitudes (Brexit). In the rush to work out how to get our parents, grandparents and less digitally engaged younger friends onto Houseparty, Instagram or Zoom in the wake of the coronavirus, it’s become obvious that our failure to design age-inclusive communities and tackle digital exclusion have been a big part of the cause of this intergenerational drift. Unless we get this right going forward, we will face not only a coronavirus-driven economic recession but also a social recession.

Ironically, it is COVID-19, forcing social distancing and social isolation on us that has encouraged many people to work out how we communicate better in the increasingly digital world which many of us now live big parts of our lives in. It also might mean that we have an opportunity to change things, with generations possibly closer today than they have been for decades.

As Baroness Cavendish pointed out in the FT this week:

“Right now, instead of being at war with each other, it feels as though the generations have never been closer. Far from whingeing about grandma, the country is mobilising to support her. Students have set up websites to help local elderly people get help. Children are sending letters to care homes. And the old are locking themselves away — not just to save themselves but to protect the NHS for all of us”.

But the reality is, we have been drifting apart, at least spatially. While there has been a slight increase in the proportion of households with a grandparent as head of household living with their grandchildren (2.7% to 3.2% over the past decade), over many decades we have slowly been moving away from sharing homes with our families. Surveys from the 1950s and 1960s found that between one third and one half of older people in the UK lived in a household containing one of their children. By the 1990s, this proportion was closer to 5-15%. New ONS Statistics pulled together at the request of Neil O’Brien MP revealed that 15% of older people in the UK now live with someone of working age.

And in light of the current coronavirus pandemic, we do seem to be finding it hard to communicate across generations:

Debra Allcock Tyler (@DebAllcockTyler) tweeted on Tue, Mar 17, 2020: Most of us will be ok so the unprecedented measures are to protect the most vulnerable. But the most vulnerable eg, my bloody parents and their peers, are not co-operating! If it comes to arresting folk to keep them indoors I will happily snitch on the parentals!

Caroline Criado Perez (@CCriadoPerez) tweeted on Tue, Mar 17, 2020: So what have YOU been doing to try to convince your boomer parent that yes they may feel no older than 45, but no, really, this advice to stay home really does apply to them too and now maybe isn’t the time to go shopping for a new coffee table?

As many of us have on the one hand forgotten how to talk to each other, we have also failed to engage older people adequality with new technology. In 2008, we argued “there is enormous potential in using online platforms to advance intergenerational relations”. We pointed out that “importantly, the infrastructure required is either free (e.g. online social networking sites) or relatively low-cost to develop (i.e. websites, etc.)”. Yet digital exclusion remains a barrier for many people.

The most isolated during the current crisis and any future ones are likely to be those who are digitally excluded. Coming out of this crisis, we must ensure everyone has the opportunity to learn and engage. Service providers and community planners need to better design inclusive spaces and inclusive activities for all ages. And let’s have more all-age initiatives like parkrun and Care Home Open Day on 26 June.

Public policy must become less divisive and stop pitching young against old. Policymakers must at the same time, better recognise that major global challenges (climate change and meaningless and poorly rewarded work for example) impact on today’s and tomorrow’s young and old.

The coronavirus has shone a light on the urgent need to improve the way we engage across generations. And it has highlighted our failure to create inclusive communities and tackle digital inclusion. But perhaps, as Camilla Cavendish argues, there are reasons for optimism. A social recession facilitated by a failure of the intergenerational contract is not inevitable.



ILC’s Future of Ageing conference, Together for Tomorrow, will take place on 3 December in London. One session at the conference will explore the themes of this blog.

David Sinclair

Director, ILC

David has worked in policy and research on ageing and demographic change for 15 years. David has a particular interest in older consumers, adult vaccination, active ageing, financial services, and the role of technology in an ageing society. He has a strong knowledge of UK and global ageing society issues, from healthcare to pensions and from housing to transport.