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Without Rites of Passage, What Does the Future Hold for Young Adults and Their Older Counterparts?


By Philip C. Marshall, founder of Beyond Brooke: Advancing elder justice

Rites of Passage

Throughout our lives, we experience rites of passage to indicate the end of one phase of development and the beginning of the next. Our rites are now in limbo, due to the emergence of COVID-19. This ambiguity is enhanced and exasperated for younger adults.

Rites of passage include three phases: separation, liminality, and incorporation.

Separation: In 2020, as pandemic victims died, many unnecessarily, spring-break celebrations segued to semi-permanent separations; and students began defaulting on loans after losing jobs, income, and confidence.

Liminality: In the midst of a humanitarian crisis, young adults stand at the threshold, unable to move forward when considering college and/or careers. The liminal phase in any passage is intense so it’s usually short, before a return to society’s structure and stability, regained with participants typically guided by elders.

Incorporation: Occurs when individuals re-enter society with a new status that includes roles and responsibilities. Having felt disembodied, now incorporated individuals regain their sense of self in society. Today, incorporation has been thwarted or aborted.

National Service

Rites of passage strengthen our personal relationships and responsibility to help preserve our country, especially when we “pre-serve”—or “serve before”—fellow citizens. National service provides an opportunity to serve our communities, countrywide.  

Recently, a bipartisan bill, the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act (S.3964) was introduced. If passed, the bill will provide national service for younger adults and older adults through AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, respectively—both part of the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC).

“A July 2020 study by economists at ICF found that every $1 that Congress appropriates for AmeriCorps and Senior Corps returns over $17 to society, program members, and the government,” as noted by AnnMaura Connolly, President, Voices for National Service.

I propose that AmeriCorps and Senior Corps forge new partnerships to couple young adults with older Americans as co-mentors. In so doing, America will help guide emerging and older adults out of limbo through national service and employment. Together, “seniors”—young and old—will provide a democratic, patriotic, unifying rite of passage for themselves, and for America.

To End Ageism, Let’s Return to Engageism

Seniors are 18, 21, and 65. Ageism starts (very) early. Ageism creates ghettos for the young and the old, as expressed by Bernice L. Neugarten in 1974. So scripted and confined, we “act our age” until “our number is up.”

Formerly, chronological age played an insignificant role in society. Ageism started in the mid-19th century, in tandem with industrialization. Young Americans were separated by age into grades in school—which, in turn, separated youth from society. By the mid-20th century, older adults were also debilitated by age segregation—through policies that forced retirement, marginalization and welfare-ization, with “much of the social dependency of older people [being] artificially created.”

Understandably, young Americans focus on personal academic grades. Of equal concern should be how academia has graded students, by age. After almost two decades of education, the debilitating effect of chronic ageism could provide a teachable moment. It doesn’t; school’s out. But, through graduation and far beyond, ageism continues.

Encore! Encore!

The genius of humankind is that we pass knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation and it’s not about how fast we run but how we pass the baton—from generation to generation. This processual and playful order becomes a selfless, not selfie, moment. Our shared binocular vision imparts a multidimensional depth to the moment, informed by past passages, for our future.

America has public/private-sector experience and expertise, too: Experience Corps, for example, as chronicled by Marc Freedman in his most recent book, How to Live Forever: The enduring power of connecting generations, which is required summer reading—not for an academic course, but to inform our life course. Freedman, CEO and founder of Encore.org, recognizes “younger and older people being the twin bulwarks of the national service movement.”

Such efforts inform the potential and promise of the CORPS Act, especially when generations get together—through Encore.org’s Gen2Gen (with young people), for example—here,with seniors (young and old) as they head to their next act, together.

Let’s bring younger adults back center stage as lead actors in their own lives, strengthened by supporting actors: older adults as guides; and to bring seniors—younger and older—out of limbo to re-incorporate with society, with their citizenship strengthened by engagement through co-mentorship.

Through legislative acts, the federal government can empower each of us to act. Through federal agencies each of us can gain greater agency in our next act, guided by public-private partnerships, best practices, and national service.

This blog post is based on an article.

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Special Thanks to Judith D. Tamkin

We are sincerely appreciative to Judith D. Tamkin for her gift to help establish the USC Center on Elder Mistreatment’s website. Her deep and personal commitment to eradicating elder abuse is helping to reshape our understanding of elder abuse and ultimately save innumerable older adults from abuse and neglect.