The “new normal” is for all ages

A three generational outing in Singapore's Bishan Park, 2 November, 2020. Banner image: Shutterstock/Ray's Images

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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The pandemic revealed the true colours of our paradigms about age

Remember using litmus paper in chemistry classes? The paper would change colour to indicate whether the substance was acidic or basic. This is a chemical analogy we’d like to use to describe how the pandemic revealed the colours of the embedded ageism in our societies. Children and older adults—the two edges of the age spectrum—have been the most impacted by social isolation and access to education and healthcare.

Released this year, the Global Report on Ageism states that “ageism has serious and far-reaching consequences for people’s health, well-being and human rights”. However, an important difference between children and older adults in combating ageism is that children are rarely directly present in conversations about how we should organise our lives. They count on good-willed adults as representatives, gatekeepers—and sometimes translators—of children’s views into knowledge that decision-makers can process and take into account. Reports on children’s experiences of the pandemic (some of them led by children themselves) pleaded for specific understanding of the impacts that the COVID-19 crisis had on children, and called for partnership with children and young people in creating and evaluating responses.

The pandemic has been a large-scale showcase of what adults normally do in “stress mode”: they take charge, not always in the best interests of children they wish to represent. On a more hopeful note, the pandemic has also been a powerful, shared experience that expanded humanity’s consciousness about its own blind spots. Like litmus paper, it brought an important awareness to the surface and is giving us all an opportunity to fundamentally change the narrative of how different generations relate and participate together in creating the post-pandemic world—the so-called “new normal”.

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Doing it differently: an era of partnership across generations

We’d like to make a holistic case for promoting partnership between children and adults, quickly navigating rights, well-being, sustainability and humanistic perspectives.

First and foremost, participation is a human right that has no age tag. It is the foundation of democracies, and a precursor to other rights related to protection and provision. The next social revolution—following the rights of women and the recognition of gender identity as a spectrum—will be the widespread recognition of children as agents of change. In the past, a lack of economic and political power has prevented children from accessing their right to participate, but communication technologies and social media are contributing to bridging that gap.

Second, our notions of well-being are often adult-centred. Children might experience it differently, so only through participation can we keep connected to what is relevant for them. An important dimension of well-being is relationships between generations, at home, at school, in the community.

Third, services targeting or impacting children can become more effective and sustainable when they take children’s experiences into account. Several initiatives using stakeholder engagement and co-production have demonstrated the multiple benefits of involving children in design, implementation and evaluation of child-focused services.

Last, and maybe from a more spiritual standpoint, the world needs to make available the qualities associated with children—a sense of fairness and possibility, creativity and playfulness, focus on the present—if we are to find innovative solutions for the struggles we face as humanity around climate change, social justice and technological advancement.

More on the Forum Network: "Bridging the Digital Literary Gap is Essential for Equity in Aging" by Lawrence Kosick, Co-Founder, GetSetUp

More on the Forum Network: "Bridging the Digital Literary Gap is Essential for Equity in Aging" by Lawrence Kosick, Co-Founder, GetSetUpMore on the Forum Network: "Bridging the Digital Literary Gap is Essential for Equity in Aging" by Lawrence Kosick, Co-Founder, GetSetUp

What is there already? What is needed?

The years before the rise of the pandemic saw the emergence of movements of young people leading discourse on issues like racial equality, women’s access to education, gun control and climate change.

Recently the European Union has adopted an ambitious strategy for fulfilling the rights of children that is, among other pillars, anchored on participation. The World Health Organization calls for partnership between generations. The OECD has created Youthwise, a consultative body with young people to inform its campaign on the Future of Work. The Learning for Well-being Foundation, in partnership with the Bertelsmann Foundation and a community of child and adult advocates for children’s participation, have initiated ACT2gether, a global partnership promoting intergenerational collaboration as means to create fairness and sustainability in our communities.

These are but a few initiatives that are slowly but surely demonstrating that another way is not only possible, but better. A deep cultural change is needed, and must happen at four levels:

  • In our beliefs: We must shift our views of childhood and adulthood to include a vision of mutual learning, where children are agents and adults co-constructors of being. That means children help adults develop and become themselves, the same way adults help children.
  • In our behaviour: To allow that to happen we must “go back to basics”—we must become experts at intergenerational relationships and acknowledge the connection between inner transformation and outer change. That means cultivating our core human capacities like listening, empathising and reflecting in the context of our actions.
  • In our structures: We must create spaces in our families, organisations and institutions that support (and sometimes facilitate) such quality of relating, so that children feel empowered to contribute with their best self to their communities.
  • In our collective action: We must use our creativity to find new and better ways to share power across generations, from family spaces, to communities, to the governance of our countries.

Twenty years from now, we do not have to look at the pandemic as the revealing indicator of our ageist societies. Instead, we can think: this was a catalyst in a social revolution towards partnership between generations.

Isn’t this a post-pandemic world worth creating?

Related Topics

Child Well-being Intergenerational Solidarity New Societal Contract Tackling Covid-19


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Luís Manuel Pinto

Director of Programmes and Learning, Learning for Well-being Foundation

Luís Manuel Pinto is Director for Programmes and Learning at the Learning for Well-being foundation, where he applies a holistic approach to creating and managing programmes focusing on the intersection between well-being and participation. He is particularly interested in how individual patterns of communication and learning impact relationships —in particular, between children and adults— and how these become pathways for personal and organisational development. His path has been in both formal and non-formal education, working with children, young people and educators. He lives in Lisbon with his husband and his cat.