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July 18, 2020, 8:54 a.m. EDT

These tips can help millennials and Gen-Zers make their point on Black Lives Matter and racism to their boomer elders

Aging expert Ken Dychtwald: Older America is mostly a white America — and now’s their chance to champion a more diverse America

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By Jonathan Burton, MarketWatch

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Q: Let’s look deeper at attitudes towards race among age groups. When it comes to diversity and racial equity, what do older people need to understand about young people?

Dychtwald: For young people today, diversity is not something they think about or take note of, which is what often older people have to stop and do. Diversity is simply the way it is for young people. It's like the air they breathe. It's like having 500 flavors of ice cream, where when I was growing up, there were only a handful.

To be young is to have a greater sense of connectivity and interrelationship between different kinds of people and frankly more fluidity in so many ways.

But if you jump to our older generations, let's say Boomers and the Silent Generation, diversity is, for most, less-familiar, less comfortable territory. 

Which means that 60- and 70- and 80-year-olds have to really take stock of themselves and recognize that either consciously or unconsciously, they may be living and feeling and thinking in a biased way, holding onto prejudices from another time that were wrong then — and wrong today. Things are changing so fast, and our racial and lifestyle and religious make-ups are shifting, generation to generation. I think this is one of the drivers for why many — not all — but many older people are alienated, entrenched, or worse, antagonistic to this new American cultural tapestry that's emerging.

Q: Why should older people have to ‘take stock’ and have a responsibility to younger generations? Most people in or near retirement have worked a lifetime, raised a family, and spend time with their children and grandchildren. They’re done. Why can’t young people take care of themselves?

Dychtwald: As we get older, while we might be retiring from our jobs, it's not a time to take a 20-plus- year vacation break from citizenship. It’s unfortunate that so many older men and women try to wind the clock backwards and live in the past, with yesterday’s fashions, yesterday’s technologies and yesterday’s racial make-up.

Rather, with all of the new longevity and a lifetime of experience, modern elderhood should be the time to become generative, to give back, and not just to give back to your own kin but to give back to communities and society at large. And let’s not forget, it’s today’s young people that are contributing to our Social Security and Medicare benefits. 

People will often say, oh, I'm very connected with young people, I talk to my kids and grandkids all the time. You don't hear that many older people saying, “I really have a lot of involvement with younger people from other neighborhoods, other races, other countries and other backgrounds.”

Q: If someone wants to break their own pattern and broaden their worldview, or talk honestly about race and racism with family and friends, what steps can they take? 

Dychtwald: One way is self-review. Taking advantage of the cocooning that COVID-19 has catalyzed to reflect on how we can emerge as better versions of ourselves. For example, as a 70-year-old boomer myself, I’ve concluded that it's not enough for me to have lived my life embedded in my era; I need to take stock of myself and find ways to become more connected and aware of what young people are thinking and feeling, their hopes as well as their fears.  

Another approach is through education. How do we educate people? I am a big supporter of global travel — which I sure hope we’re allowed to do again before too long. You go to another country, meet the people, dance their dances, eat their food, watch their TV shows, and you get a little more outside of the box you've grown up in.

Of course, you can also read, watch shows outside of your usual choices, or even take classes with the intent to expand yourself.

Grown-ups should not be turning the world into a political version of Wrestlemania.

Another approach is confrontation, preferably respectfully handled. Think about the trials and tribulations of any marriage or friendship. If somebody's off-kilter or they're not paying attention, sometimes you’ve got to say, “Hey, I don't agree. Snap out of it!”

Think of the way people get confronted when there's a medical diagnosis. Many people live without taking much care of their health. They usually know what they ought to be doing, but they don't do it. Then you get a scary diagnosis — or you just had a stroke, or you are diabetic, or your brother just had a heart attack. That’s a confrontation and a wake-up call to reconsider lots of things.

With all of today’s divisiveness, we grown-ups should not be turning the world into a political version of Wrestlemania, but as a national community that’s hurting and could benefit from some healing guidance.

Last is an intervention. Think about it: If I'm addicted to an opioid, it's not enough to simply say I'm an opioid addict. I'm addicted to it. I'm connected to it. I'm doing a dance with it that I can't release. A powerful intervention can cause me to realize how important it is for me to break free of that addiction, to realize that I'll be a better person if I can break this habit. 

A lot of people are addicted to their racist prejudices and may not even realize it, and they might even surround themselves with other people who are similarly addicted. So how do you get people, either individually or as a group, to recognize this? There’s no question that the Black Lives Matter movement is attempting to provide an intervention to both white people and Black people in America. 

Also, maybe folks can have their kids talk to them and really listen to what they have to say; maybe it's by having them watch certain programs; or by purposely interacting with people of other races or backgrounds in order to better understand them. It's not just Black/white. It's the realization that many of our views and our personal narratives, the story that goes on inside our mind, by which we evaluate and judge, were shaped in a different time in history. 

Q: What do young people need to know about older people so they can find common ground on issues of race and racism?

Dychtwald: Older people often say they don't wish for young people to push them to the sidelines, but during my 45 years as a psychologist and gerontologist studying these dynamics, I’ve repeatedly seen that many older people — usually unknowingly — move themselves to the sidelines. They do this by not staying modern, by not staying current, by not being comfortable and fluent with the latest technology and sociology.

By not being aware of the issues of young people, older people relegate themselves to the sidelines, and then they get frustrated and anxious when they feel marginalized and see that people at the center of the playing field don't necessarily think or feel the way they do.

A defect of our modern society is that we have allowed the segregation of generations.

A defect of our modern society is that we have allowed the segregation of generations. Young people go to school with young people; colleges don't have many retirees back on campus, older people are discharged from the workforce. So you can have work teams with no older people on them. Our faith leaders don't talk about inter-generational connections enough, don’t introduce ideas and understanding about where we might be unjust and not functioning in the highest possible way. 

It's not simply that we’ve got to get grandma to sit down and understand what's wrong about things. We need public forums. We need to call these issues out. Only 62% of people over 75 are on the internet, and only 28% of them feel comfortable with social media.

What we've created is segregation by age, and what we need is for all generations to interact more. That will bring more much-needed awareness and empathy, which hopefully can lead to wiser and more thoughtful conclusions which respect our many differences and interdependencies. So rather than older people going off to play golf and thinking, “It's not my problem, I already served my time as a worker and a parent,” I believe it is the role of elders to bring together the tribes and to work shoulder to shoulder with younger generations to build new multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-generational communities.

This is not a call to vacation. It's a call to action. We're all in this, and we've all got to be a part of the fix. 

Ken Dychtwald is a psychologist, gerontologist and founder and CEO of Age Wave,  a think tank that conducts field research and provides consulting services to corporations and non-profit organizations worldwide on aging and longevity-related issues. He is the author of 17 books including the newly published “ ” co-authored with Robert Morison.

More: There’s only one generation in U.S. history that’s considered to be more unlucky than the ‘Lost Generation’

Also read: 6 ways to invest in racial justice

Jonathan Burton is a MarketWatch editor and columnist based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @MKTWBurton.

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Jonathan Burton is the investing editor for MarketWatch and covers investing strategies and mutual fund-related news from San Francisco. He also writes the...

Jonathan Burton is the investing editor for MarketWatch and covers investing strategies and mutual fund-related news from San Francisco. He also writes the "Life Savings" column. Previously he held contributing editor positions at Bloomberg Personal Finance, Mutual Funds and Individual Investor magazines, and was a reporter with the Far Eastern Economic Review and Investor's Business Daily. He is also the author of two books on investing.

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