Today we talk with Marc Freedman and Eunice Lin Nichols about the power of connection, collaboration, and cocreation between older and younger changemakers; the values they each bring to their work; and their reasons for hope. This conversation between Marc, Eunice, and Chi Nguyen has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
Eunice: The memory I want to share is about a family vacation to New York City when I was in high school. We were waiting in the TKTS line hoping to score discounted tickets for a Broadway show when we struck up a conversation with an older couple – a Chinese man and a white woman – standing in front of us. My family was part of a small but tight-knit Chinese community in the Midwest. I had never met anyone in an interracial marriage, but I was even more surprised to learn the husband was an English professor at a college on the East Coast. I loved reading. I read voraciously. But I had no idea that you could be Chinese and viably pursue an English degree in college or a career in English literature.
Talking to this older Chinese man and learning about his life gave me a very different vision of who I could be and the path I could take. He gave me his address and invited me to write to him with questions about my college or career journey. Seeing that my parents had pursued careers in science because of their limited English, he knew that I might benefit from an expanded network, so he became that network for me. I went on to attend a small liberal arts college on the East Coast that my family had never heard of before but was the perfect fit for me. And yes, I ended up majoring in English. I’m sure the professor I met that day has no idea what a profound influence he had on my life from those two hours in the TKTS line. You never know how a decision to engage in conversation might change someone's life. He did that for me.
Marc: Eunice and I have known each other for many, many years, and I have never before heard that moving story. I also took the liberty not to share my earliest connection, but one that, in some ways, had the biggest impact on the trajectory of my life. Growing up, I attended a vast, urban public high school with 6,000 students. It was not an academically oriented place. There were often 40 to 50 students in a class. Swinging in the opposite direction, I ended up – like Eunice – going to a small liberal arts college with a total of 1,200 students. When I arrived, the academic demands I encountered were not only new, but a shock to my system. I must have set an intercollegiate record for the most incompletes during my first two years. There were only 20 classes, and I failed to complete nine of them.
That turned out to be a disguised blessing: Before being granted each incomplete, the school required I meet with a wizened older dean to talk about my struggles. He had a beard, wore a bolo tie, and possessed a voice so soft one needed to lean far forward to discern what he was saying. Needless to say, I visited this man, Gilmore Stott, many times. In the process, we forged a deep bond that I carry with me to this day. Although I did not realize it at the time, Gil Stott never took me to task for my procrastinating ways. He never wagged his finger or gave me any sage advice. He just took an interest in me as a human being. He invited me over to his house for dinner and introduced me to his family. In the process, he made me feel like family. And in doing so, he made me feel like I belonged. It was the first time I witnessed so clearly the transcendent power of relationship, connection, and care – and the role older people can play in bringing those attributes to the lives of younger people, especially at challenging times.
What values guide your work?
Eunice: The personal values I bring into this work are authenticity and vulnerability. I have always believed that the work we do is deeply personal. Anytime you bridge generational divides and work with older and younger people, it reflects the ways we as human beings are wired and built to connect, collaborate, and co-create across generations. This cogenerational work hearkens back to my experience as a daughter of immigrants from Taiwan. Like many immigrant families, I grew up living with my grandparents. Their legacy is a big part of why I bring personal vulnerability, authenticity, and inner self to my work.
I also cherish the value of community and the ways in which being in community forces us to work together across difference. It’s why I took a job running one of Encore’s signature programs at the age of 26, mobilizing young AmeriCorps VISTA members and volunteers 50 and older to help Bay Area students read by third grade. Our work was done in community: each day, I had the privilege of supporting a team of 200 volunteers working together across all lines of difference to make a difference in their community. This early and formative experience in my career set the standard for what I believe is achievable through cogeneration, and I long for everybody to have that.
Marc: One of the discoveries for me – in working to develop the Experience Corps program Eunice described – was that our goals and values were inverted. We went into the program believing the power of relationships between older and younger people would be a trust-building vehicle to improve the prospects of children learning to read by the third grade. And it served that purpose. But now as I look back at that experience from the vantage of my 60s, I realize that it was often the other way around. The academic tutoring was the vehicle for our real goal: to form deep and transformative bonds – essentially love – flowing up and down the generational chain. So, I would say love is one of the chief values informing our work.
A related value is love in service of a better future. It is not just young people who have a stake in the future. Older people do, too. Research about thriving and happiness in later life points to the centrality of what psychologists call generativity, the growing desire as we grow older to invest in those things that nurture and support younger generations. That impulse, the great psychologist Erik Erikson said, could be encapsulated in the phrase, “I am what survives of me.” And I think he was onto something profoundly important.
I think intergenerational relationships, so central to our work, are built around a kind co-generativity. Younger and older people coming together for mutual benefit and collective impact, joined by a commitment to co-creating a better future. A future that the older people may not actually see first-hand, but are connected to nonetheless.
What are you working on right now?
Marc: For much of Encore’s history, we have focused on encouraging and enabling older people to find purpose and connection through helping solve societal problems, especially ones linked to improving the lives and prospects of young people.
Now, in our new chapter as an organization – in Encore’s encore – we are taking the next step. We are not just asking what older people can do for the next generation, but what older people can do with the next generation. We are focusing on how the generations can come together to forge bonds, solve problems, and bridge divides. We are asking how they can co-create a better future for all ages.
One of the centerpieces of this work is something we’re calling the Cogenerational Challenge. It begins with a set of challenges for older and younger people to come together to take on the big issues of the day. For example, to join forces to end loneliness, to save democracy, to fight for climate justice.
In response to each challenge, we will cultivate a cohort of changemakers who will devise solutions to each cogenerational challenge. These could be policy ideas, commercial ventures, social enterprises. We will then help elevate those solutions, and work to generate investments to take the most promising ideas to scale.
In the end, we are trying to build a movement of older people and younger people who want to work side-by-side for a better future, connecting and collaborating to solve pressing problems, but also providing a model for how our increasingly multigenerational society and growing age diversity can be a source of strength.
Eunice: One of our big investments right now is in national service through the Generations Serving Together initiative. We are kicking off a year-long pilot with eight AmeriCorps programs to experiment with ways to bring older and younger Corps members and volunteers together to solve problems. We also just closed the application for our Gen2Gen Innovation Fellowship where 15 social innovators of all ages are working to bridge generational divides. We are very excited to capture the lessons coming out of these two programs over the next year.
Also, in the spirit of cogeneration, I recently stepped into a co-CEO partnership with Marc. While there is a growing body of literature and practice related to the idea of co-leadership, there’s very little on cogenerational leadership, which adds an intentional layer of diversity around age. As we step into this new way of working, Marc and I intend to be transparent and vulnerable about what we’re learning–and to take the opportunity to think, write, and talk about it. Together, we hope to make cogenerational leadership an intriguing and accessible model for others in the field to embrace.
How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?
Marc: Like so many others, the pandemic affected me very personally. To start, I stopped traveling, after decades on the road. And in the context of everything we have been talking about in this conversation, I started living a much more multigenerational life. My in-laws moved in with us; actually, they moved into a cottage at the back of our house. We went from being a two-generation family to becoming a three-generation household. We did it out of efficiency, but efficiency quickly turned into humanity. My in-laws are helping us navigate the challenges of supporting three teenage kids. But it’s also been a great source of joy. Every night, my 14-year-old trots out to the back to watch Jeopardy with his grandmother. Multigenerational living has helped us in myriad ways – logistically, psychologically, spiritually – to navigate these tough times.
More broadly, to Encore’s mission, the pandemic has taken a massive toll on older people. It has led to so many older people losing their lives, getting cut off socially, divided from younger generations, experiencing greater loneliness, along with a pervasive purposelessness. At the same time, I think the pandemic is prompting greater appreciation of the essential value of cross-generational bonds. You know the old song, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’ I am hoping that we will come out of this difficult period with a greater appreciation of the centrality of generational ties, and more creativity in bringing generations together in the course of daily life. In ways that extend beyond families, and into the wider community.
Eunice: Prior to the pandemic, the conversation, programs, and interventions around social isolation and loneliness were almost exclusively focused on older people. The pandemic created a forcing function for us to focus on the urgent and growing social isolation and loneliness of young people – and gave us opportunity to think about how two populations sharing the same challenge might naturally be the best solution for one another. We are now seeing unprecedented innovation bringing older and younger people together for connection and collaboration.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
Marc: There is a lot of positive change happening in this area. Even In popular culture, long a bastion of ageism. Today, there are so many compelling illustrations of the generations coming together on TV, in music, in film. What’s more, audiences are embracing these narratives. Witness Hacks and Only Murders in the Building, both television series about cross-generational collaboration. They were again this year nominated for multiple Emmys and other awards. In music, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, more than a half century apart in age, have captured the hearts of so many people with their recent album, and won multiple Grammys for their recording together. And change is not just in the air, it’s happening on the ground. There has been a four-fold increase in multigenerational housing in the U.S.
The second source of inspiration comes from the research study we just did with NORC at the University of Chicago. The study shows a deep desire on the part of older and younger people to work together for change – with young people and people of color across the age spectrum leading the way. These findings give me hope for our multigenerational future, and a certain amount of personal joy. Eunice and I were both young people in our 20s deeply interested in working together with older people. It is heartening to see many young people today who have that same instinct.
Eunice: That is true for me as well. I have always loved doing things in community, so co-leadership with Marc and the ability to lead with multiple viewpoints in the mix gives me a lot of joy. Our growing focus on cogenerational collaboration requires us to function in community by design. These days, when Marc or I are asked to speak at an event, we look at the lineup and ask if we can invite someone two decades older or younger to join us in that conversation. It’s part of living out our values and modeling them for others, but honestly, it’s also just a lot more fun.
Marc Freedman, founder and co-CEO of Encore.org, is a renowned social entrepreneur and one of the nation’s leading experts on the longevity revolution. Under Marc’s leadership, Encore.org has pioneered innovative programs and sparked a growing movement to tap the talent and experience of people in midlife and beyond as a human resource for solving our most vexing social problems. Freedman was named a Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the World Economic Forum, has been honored with the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, and was selected as a “Legend of Mentoring” by MENTOR. His most recent book, How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations (Hachette/PublicAffairs), topped the Wall Street Journal’s 2018 list of best books on aging well.
Eunice Lin Nichols is co-CEO of Encore.org. She has spent more than two decades bringing older and younger generations together to bridge divides and solve problems, including leading Encore.org’s innovation portfolio of fellowships and prizes, serving as national campaign director for the Generation to Generation initiative, running The Purpose Prize (now a program of AARP), and scaling Experience Corps from one neighborhood school in San Francisco into a thriving Bay Area program helping thousands of kids read by third grade. Eunice is a recipient of the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for advancing innovative and effective solutions to California’s most significant issues.