Our society is aging. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs has estimated that the number of older people (aged 60 or over) will grow to more than 2 billion by 2050.
In Europe declining fertility, "ageing from the bottom", and longer life expectancy, "ageing from the top", are leading to an increasingly olderpopulation despite demographic variations between countries. This population aging brings many challenges for society, as well as a need for interventions that can maintain or improve the mental and physical health,the personal autonomy, and the social wellbeing of older people. It also provides society with a wealth of expertise and knowledge, and an opportunity to harness these for the benefit of younger generations and their comprehensive education and socialisation.
Studies conducted in recent years have shown that intergenerational contact can contribute significantly to realising the above-mentioned improvements to active ageing, to intergenerational solidarity, to social cohesion, and to better learning opportunities for specific groups of people.
However, the studies also concluded that for such social interaction across generations to be successful, it must be stimulated actively – it is not enough to just wait for it to happen. Not only do generations hold negative stereotypes about each other, but generational differences also contribute to a genuine lack of mutual understanding, which may serve to inhibit interaction between, and learning across, generations. Systematic intergenerational learning opportunities seem a promising solution.
The European Network for Intergenerational Learning (ENIL) attempted to identify and analyse the impact of intergenerational learning on different target groups, young and old, from several perspectives, starting from the societal impact envisaged in policy documents and continuing to individual, small-scale benefits. Here I will focus on three of the latter type of identified benefits, leaving policy impact for another time. I identify that playing these games is associated to four benefits associated to this capacity of digital games to facilitate social interaction: (1) creating personal bonds and eliminating stereotypes across generations, (2) enhancingreciprocal learning and the motivation to learn, and (3) reducing social anxiety.
Creating Personal Bonds and Eliminating Stereotypes across Generations
Mixed-age interactions are often asymmetrical interactions in which older individuals make the greater effort to stimulate younger individuals to interact. Usually, the lack of interaction comes from the negative stereotypes both generations hold of one another and/or the lack of mutual understanding. The ENIL discuss the capacity of intergenerational learning activities to serve as a mediating tool to help foster or strengthen relationships between generations, both in situations where high levels of prejudice and stereotyping exists, and in situations in which there is already an openness towards the other generation. They show that intergenerational learning can contribute to a greater mutual understanding between the generations through personal bonds. For example, digital games as a shared activity between two generations can result in positive changes in their intergenerational perceptions.
Mediated, planned intergenerational learning activities nurture a new type of relationship between youth and the elderly, by generating new conversational topics, by promoting focused positive interaction, by dispersingthe underlying tension that may exist between two generations, or engaging them in a task that draws the focus away from potential friction. Intergenerational learning activities were particularly useful at improvingpositive communication on and learning about sensitive topics (political ideologies, religious views, sexual health). The activity can, for example, provide opportunities for interaction by becoming an initial conversational topic.
This benefit was particularly evident in the case of family members and family interactions. However, unlike Family Learning, with which it shares a number of features , with Intergenerational Learning family relations are not a precondition for engagement in activities; intergenerational learning focuses less on learning together, and more on learning from each other, on the intentional transfer of knowledge and skills from one generation to another.
Enhancing Reciprocal Learning and the Motivation to Learn
The exchange of knowledge and skills across generations is a major benefit of intergenerational practices. The ENIL studies suggest that the simultaneous exchange of expertise between two generations in an interactive context is a productive form of learning. Also, placing younger learners as those in the know, and the older players as the less knowledgeable, appears to offer potential for keeping both generations interested in the learning experience. A great many of the case studies identified by the network focus, for example, on transferring ICT skills to seniors while increasing knowledge about political and civic participation for young people.
Another factor to be taken into account is the difference between the generations in motivation for learning. This difference must be considered when designing an intergenerational learning activity; if both the older and the younger generation are to remain interested in it together in the long run. The studies show that the most successful intergenerational learning activities are those designed to encourage asymmetrical interaction between generations.
Empowering either generation by asking them to take the role of teachers, admirers or caretakers, while at the same time placing them in the position to demonstrate their abilities, has proven a stronger motivating factor across generations than within the same age group. Older learners, for example, were generally found to reject reflex-oriented activities, as they found such activities more difficult, less interesting and hence less enjoyable due to age-related physical conditions or disabilities; however, the challenge and support of younger generations proved essential in motivating them to participate in learning. Likewise, as young learners traditionally tend to be more competitive and inclined to assume active rather than supportive roles, intergenerational learning activities have proven to be a good motivational factor for young people to assume more supportive roles, and to continue to learn even at times where competitive factors were missing.
Reducing social anxiety
The capacity of intergenerational learning to reduce social anxiety and increase sociability is also discussed in the ENIL studies. The case studies showed that social anxiousness decreased and sociability increased in all generations involved after intergenerational learning activities, while learning with peers or alone did not have significant effects on social anxiety and sociability. This leads overall to an improvement in the quality of life of the elderly and to their active involvement in society, but also to a higher level of involvement of young people in societal matters. It also encourages interaction between young and the elderly, which is a good opportunity for intergenerational solidarity and dialogue, for promoting intergenerational solidarity and social responsibility.
Encouraging social inclusion is usually difficult to achieve through learning opportunities: the fact that intergenerational learning projects indicate impact at this level is laudable, and more work needs to be done to promote this approach for bringing back people into society, a challenging tasks that would address different policies and which would bring about wider benefits for society.
As a final caveat it should be mentioned that the field of Intergenerational Learning is extremely complex, scattered, and there is very limited data on what has been done and the types of impact achieved. In the course of the ENIL studies, information received has been consistent in identifying the benefits discussed above, however, they would need to be the object of a wider and more in-depth study.