Category Archives: Multigenerational

What Will it Be Like?

I used to work in low-income senior apartment buildings. In addition to my duties as a landlord, I got to do some fun activities. Our local public transportation agency had a program where they would provide a bus if you had enough interested seniors, and take them to the museum, an afternoon jazz show, a tour of the local tea factory, a trip to the Italian restaurant with the seemingly endless buffet, and the like.

T-Rex skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the destinations of the RTD Senior-Ride program. ©clmcdermid

Seniors in low-income communities have typically been through a lot in their lifetimes, and they are still living under the grinding, relentless trauma of poverty. Many were hesitant to spend even the reduced rate bus fair and activity costs. They were worried about spending money on something they might not enjoy. They asked me, over and over, what will it be like?

My mind keeps returning to that plaintive question now. What will it be like has become the question on everyone’s mind. It haunts our national discussions, our private lives, and our dreams. What will it be like when the second wave hits? What will it be like if/when I have to go back to work? What will it be like to find work to go back to? What will it be like to live during an economic depression?

Unfortunately, no one can answer these questions, and we don’t have the option of not finding out.

I’ve written before about tolerating ambiguity as an important life skill that we are all learning and relearning together. Since then, the ambiguity has only grown. Can we open up safely? Can we address the staggering life and death iniquities faced by people of color in modern America? Will another documented instance of shocking police brutality, this time overtly murderous, finally lead to meaningful change? Will there be more legislation to help the states and individuals? Will they extend unemployment?

A painting of French and English troops fighting at the Battle of Waterloo.  Officers on horseback are in the foreground, and troops in formation are in the background.  One officer is in the process of falling off a black horse.
The Battle of Waterloo, by Thomas Jones Barker. Public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We aren’t used to this anymore. In 1815, it took news of the Battle of Waterloo four days to travel to London, a distance that can now be covered in about five hours by car. The whole continent was holding its breath. Now we get our information in near real-time. We never have to hold our breath for very long. And our forecasting in a variety of fields has become so sophisticated that we’re downright affronted if we don’t know about a storm ten days in advance. Forecasts in politics and economics are often inaccurate, but having constant access to them makes us feel better.

We no longer know what to do with ourselves when even the experts are careful to tell us that they don’t know what is going to happen. We’ve never lived through such a slow-moving crisis before. The repercussions of changes in policy now, as the country is opening back up, won’t be seen for weeks, even a month.

It’s hard to think of times in modern life when the question of what will it be like has been so central. I think about my nieces when they made the big leap from elementary school into middle school. And I think about that right of passage for Americans lucky enough to have the classic college experience. Moving into a dorm for the first time is still fraught with uncertainty, no matter that the campus has been toured and you’ve gotten to know other freshmen online.

But those are personal transitions and tell us little about something we are experiencing together as a society. I asked my parents, 80 and 81, about the uncertainties of the history they have lived through. My mother remembers an armed flight my father took to an unknown destination (it turned out to be Laos) while he was in the Marine Corps and things were heating up in Southeast Asia. Dad talked about the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A black and white cartoon turtle looks in alarm as a cheeky monkey hangs from a tree, holding out a stick from which is dangling a lit stick of TNT.
Bert the turtle knows how to duck and cover. Do you? Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And maybe that can help to pinpoint something we are missing, now. Even my oldest siblings were far too young to duck and cover, but I have always marveled at how schools, parents, and children took the practice seriously. The unparalleled power of a nuclear blast was well known by then. The dangers of radiation were well established. How could otherwise intelligent people convince themselves that a school desk would protect them?

But what duck and cover did was to provide a veneer of control to protect teachers and students from their horrifying powerlessness. It was meant to protect the mental health of kids and adults, more than their persons. The feeling that you are doing something to protect yourself, no matter how farfetched, is crucial to the psyche.

That need for a self-protective ritual is manifesting itself in many ways. For some, the mask has become a talisman to protect from illness, despite most of its efficacy being in stopping the wearer from spreading germs. For others, not wearing a mask has become a sort of rain dance for the return to the old normal. An alarming amount of people believe that rejecting vaccines will protect them.

In this, the reckoning for allowing a vacuum of leadership to form in the country, everyone turns to their own magical thinking. If I disinfect my groceries, it can’t happen to me. If I microwave the mail I will be safe. It can’t hurt me if I have enough toilet paper.

Prince Charles in front of a projected map of the UK with temperatures superimposed on it, delivering a weather forecast.
Weather forecasting has become so sophisticated, even royalty can do it. Image courtesy of user Dunk on Flikr.

And perhaps some of that is a good thing. Rituals like wearing a mask, washing your hands obsessively, and keeping your distance can serve the dual purpose of making us feel a little more in control and having a public health benefit. Other practices, like my weird fixation on being sure to have a full tank of gas as often as possible (yeah, I know) are irrational, but harmless. And of course, some of these superstitions range from merely dangerous to outright malevolent.

Our own personal rain dances say a lot about us. We should choose them with care.

And of course, we have to reckon with the fact that any and all of those rituals don’t make us really safe (though hand-washing and distance are a great start.) Certainly, none of them can rescue us from the uncertainties that haunt us. So far the only answer to the question what will it be like has been that it will be like not knowing.

Missing Multigenerational Interaction

Family of many ages on wooden rope swings, youngest to oldest, left to right.
It’s normal for humans to be around other humans of all ages. Image via Adobe Stock.

I ran across this article today in Aeon by Sarah Menkedick. It is a long-form reflection on the segregation of family (kid-centered) and adult life in the United States. She makes some interesting points, but it really got me thinking that this divide, which she attributes partially to a lack of community, cuts both ways.

I am a single, childless adult who was raised in home daycare. I think it is weird when someone doesn’t know how to interact with a kid or is uncomfortable or incompetent around them. As an adult, I have worked with kids in various capacities, from my earliest jobs day-camp counseling and clerking at my local rec center to my latest adventures in substitute teaching.

Right now, the only kids in my life are my nieces. (Who are awesome, but really teens at this point.)

I miss them. Don’t get me wrong. I could never do the home daycare that my mother did, and I’m not looking for a kid-centric career. But since I am not working with kids, and my nieces are older, there are no places in my life, even once we are all out of quarantine, where I will have any significant interaction with anyone too young to hold a job. There is just no context in our society for a childless adult to be around kids. In fact, custom dictates that we snub them as noisy, messy, and inconvenient.

The implicit theme of Ms. Menkedick’s piece is that kids and families are missing something by being shunted into kid-oriented spaces and even explicitly segregated from events such as weddings. They are, and so are the adults.

Hanging out with kids exposes you to different paradigms. They haven’t yet learned or internalized all the conventions that adults don’t even notice they are living within. If we’re all swimming in the same current, kids perspectives can be so different, based on such different assumptions, they might not even be in the water.

When adults are around kids, they laugh more. In multigenerational interactions, it’s okay to be really enthusiastic, which would be weird in adult-only company. Grown-ups get a chance to teach, a chance to be joyful, and even a chance to share woe in the empathetic way we respond to tears. We get a chance to look out for someone. We are more mindful of our surroundings. We get to think things are neat and show them to an appreciative audience.

An ability, and usually the impulse, to do all these things was baked into us by evolution. We want to give our own offspring the best chance to survive, and the next best thing is to give our kin’s offspring the best chance to survive. It isn’t hard to expand this impulse to a multigenerational community. It takes a village, and all that. It’s natural for humans to be around human children, and it’s weird that we live in a society where we aren’t.

The hole in American life that was once filled by community ties impoverishes us all, kids, adults, and the elderly, alike. Multigenerational interaction is part of community, and it is a key element that is missing in our lonely, self-sufficient (but not really) lives. It’s not just kids who miss out when they aren’t included as citizens and participants in society.