Intergenerational Learning and Social Capital
The elder cannot be an elder if there is no community to make him an elder. The young child cannot feel secure if there is no elder, whose silent presence gives him or her hope in life. The adult cannot be who he or she is unless there is a strong sense of the other people around. (M. P. Somé, Ritual Power, Healing, and Community. Portland, OR: Swan/Raven & Co., 1993, p. 2)
Knowledge has been transmitted from one generation to another throughout history, often informally or incidentally. In the last 40 years, more systematic and formal intergenerational programs have arisen, with growing recognition of their integral relationship to lifelong learning and broader social purposes (Hanks and Icenogle 2001). Ideally, the generations derive mutual benefits from participation and the learning is reciprocal. Features of effective intergenerational learning have commonalities with the characteristics of social capital. This Digest examines the relationship between intergenerational learning and social capital and describes research findings and promising programs illustrating how intergenerational programs contribute to learning and the development of social capital.
How Intergenerational Learning Builds Social Capital
The concept of social capital refers to the resources of networks, norms or shared values, and trust to which individuals have access as community members; it is both an individual and a community asset (Balatti and Falk 2002). Individuals who can draw on these tangible and intangible resources and relationships will have enhanced life opportunities, and communities in which trust, reciprocity and social networks are strong will benefit from collective action and cooperation (ibid.). Two dimensions of social capital development (chronological and external) bear a resemblance to features of intergenerational programs:
[The chronological dimension] is fundamental in the processes that transmit social and cultural norms. The research makes clear how past learning needs to be reconciled with the present, in the context of…a future gaze or "vision." Externality refers to the relationships that people have with the outside world… Externality is not only about developing and using networks…It is about having the identity resource that allows one to see oneself as a member of the larger community of communities that comprise society. (ibid., pp. 286-287)
One reason to consider intergenerational learning in this context is awareness of unequal access to positive social capital and the risk that social exclusion and disadvantage will result in negative social capital (Boström 2002). The family is typically the individual's initial source of social capital, but the social changes of the last half century are having an impact on this source: increased life expectancy, greater mobility, increased reliance on nonfamilial caregivers at both ends of the life span, a more...