Ties That Bind Revisited

By Cornman, John M.; Kingson, Eric R. et al. | Aging Today, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

Ties That Bind Revisited


Cornman, John M., Kingson, Eric R., Hirshorn, Barbara A., Aging Today


The aging of America is a success and a challenge." That statement was true 25 years ago when it appeared in our book, Ties That Bind: The Interdependence of Generations (Seven Locks Press, 1986), and remains true today.

We see this success arising from our nation's century-long investments in sanitation, public health, medicine, access to healthcare, retirement savings and the economy- all of which have enabled increasing numbers of people to live longer, healthier and generally more financially secure lives. It is a success because more people have the opportunity to know their grandparents and to expect to, in turn, know grandchildren, great nieces and nephews and, perhaps, great-grandchildren. It has been a success because more often than not our society values investments in the common good, as it values the dignity of people of all ages.

Ties That Bind was written, in part, as a response to those who framed the aging of the population in a starkly different wayas a challenge marked by competition and conflict between generations. This generational-conflict philosophy holds that each generation is out for itself.

A Dangerous Path

Today, that approach is very much in vogue. Politicians, pundits, journalists and deficit hawks talk about the aging of the nation in cataclysmic terms- as an age "tsunami"- a source of conflict between generations and a major cause of federal deficits and debt. As Stephen Marche writes in his recent Esquire Magazine article ("The War Against Youth"; esquire.com/features/young-peo ple-in-the-recession-0412), "The recession didn't gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care ofthat."

That is one way to define the challenges of the population's aging. But we believe this approach takes current and future generations down a dangerous path, dividing the country by age group, and undermining core values and services that unite and undergird a strong civil society and vibrant economy. Such an approach leads to a policy framework that is focused on narrow, isolated policy prescriptions.

We maintain that it makes more sense to see the challenge of population aging in practical terms: How can we integrate the growing numbers of older adults into the fabric of our society in ways that increase opportunities for their continued contribution, while meeting the needs of all people?

Building on our previous work, we propose an all-generations approach when developing and promoting policies related to America's aging. This approach embraces a life-course perspective; gives greater attention to race, ethnicity, income, gender and sexual orientation; and recognizes that generations strongly and continuously depend upon one another to transmit knowledge, culture and economic resources. Ideally, they are also available for each other in times of celebration and crisis.

Generational Exchanges Are Fluid and Dynamic

The type and direction of exchanges taking place among and between generations may vary with historical circumstances and as generations age.

For example, the survival and development of the young necessitate that older family members and society invest in the sustenance, education and moral development of children and youth, positioning older generations to give more to the young than they receive.

However, as we pointed out in Ties That Bind, the balance of giving and receiving changes over time, so that as individuals and cohorts age, they normally provide more to others than they receive- as parents, working persons, taxpayers and caregivers to the functionally disabled. …

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