Old age is not new, but the number of people living to 85 years and beyond is increasing dramatically. And with likely medical breakthroughs on longevity on the horizon, many children born today will be able to celebrate their 100th birthday. For the first time in history, we already have four generations of human beings alive in large numbers. As a quick fact check, think about how many families you know with at least one great grandparent—which qualifies them as a four generational family! This is not a reality to gloss over, but a powerful signal to astounding changes that are quietly taking place. Are we are ready for these changes as a society? I believe not, but faith-based communities can potentially lead much needed discussions for the implications of having so many generations alive today.
A new reality needs a new name, and I’d like to suggest the Hoagie Generation™ as a replacement for the “sandwich generation,” a phrase that Dorothy Miller coined in 1981. Miller introduced it to describe the challenges of those in their 30’s and 40’s (and it was primarily women then), sandwiched between raising children and caring for parents, while also pursuing careers outside of the home. Without dismissing the challenges back then, their duration was briefer, more digestible—like a small sandwich that didn’t take long to eat. Children reached independence sooner and parents didn’t live as long.
But today, definitions and expectations of middle age have expanded (“50 is the new 40,” “60 is the new 50”), and while in 1900 only 100,000 people lived to age 85 or older, that number today is 5.5 million and growing. For a variety of reasons, children reach independence at a later age. (My definition of adulthood is when children get off of “the family phone plan.”) So families look more like hoagies than sandwiches: less vertical and much more horizontal.
Being Jewish, I can’t let go of the food metaphor and that’s one reason that I like the Hoagie Generation™. The standard size sandwich bread is approximately a four-inch square, and sandwiches are vertical. In contrast, hoagies are about a foot long and horizontal. The longer loaf of a hoagie roll better captures the new challenges and opportunities that are present for families and communities with an increased number of generations.
The hoagie metaphor also suggests mutuality. It isn’t only those who are middle-aged who feel the squeeze in supporting family members of other generations. Young adult children may also have that experience: raising their own children, watching their parents navigate big issues (health, relationships, employment), and trying to advance economically in an unpredictable economy. And 80-something year olds ponder what life holds in store for their children, grandchildren and often today, great grandchildren.
Unlike a sandwich, in which the middle is more prominent, each part of a hoagie is equal, also suggesting mutually nourishing possibilities. Young bring joy to the old, and old bring wisdom to the young. The young can be the tech department for those who are older, while elders can share experience—something that a Google search can’t offer. Those at each of end of the life spectrum and those in middle all have something to offer one another.
As a community, we have a range of issues on the horizon that don’t discriminate by generation. A few examples:
• How do we restore practices of patiently listening to one another without interruption and empathy to our relationships?
• What are some possible outcomes of changes in social attitudes toward issues like the legalization of marijuana and physician assisted suicide?
• What happens to our capacity for curiosity when our connected devices “suggest” more and more choices for us, instead of our thinking more intentionally about them, or stumbling upon new possibilities serendipitously?
• What does it mean economically and emotionally to live in a disruptive economy? If you think that disruption only affects those who are middle-aged, think about how the “older” (then 29) Mark Zuckerberg, C.E.O. of Facebook, must have felt when his multibillion dollar offer to purchase Snapchat, which he feared would disrupt Facebook, was rebuffed by Evan Spiegel (then 23 years old)?
Congregations are structured to be multi-generational, even though they often program more by demographic age and stage, and, if you “follow the money,” their budgets favor families with children. Can they turn their multi-generational potential into living communities?
So while you’re enjoying a Thanksgiving turkey, please think about the Hoagie Generation™ and let me know if:
• you can think of another place besides congregations that can become platforms for sustained, meaningful, multi-generational interaction.
• beyond one-off events (like Mitzvah Days or social action events), do you know of congregations of any religion that have already made ongoing multi-generational engagement a priority?
Thanks have a Happy Thanksgiving!