August 22, 2002, Episode Fifteen: "We Are All One of an Age"

We visited Fairfield Activity Centre Society at New Horizons in the Cook Street Village in Victoria to talk with seniors about the importance of having a special place for seniors to go and be with other seniors.  Demographers speak of "cohort effects" and "period effects" when they talk about the identity that different generations acquire as they come of age.  Cohort effects refer to the ways in which people around the same age experience similar milestones in life:  school, dating, marriage, children, careers, grandchildren, retirement.  Period effects refer to the ways significant trends or major historical events help shape the identity of the different age groups such as the Great Depression, World War II, protests in the 60s or downward economic trends in the 80s.  Both these effects shape what we call "generations."

In the 60s, it was popular to talk about the generation gap.  Referring to the vast differences in politics between those over thirty and those under thirty, this represented a major rift based upon age.  But as unique as it seemed at the time, it really isn't that odd for one generation to experience life differently than another.  Like ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic background, people tend to group with people their own age in our culture.  Who we are is in part shaped by when we were born and what historical events we identify with.


When American news anchor, Tom Brokaw wrote about the veterans of World War II as "the greatest generation" a couple of years ago, many people debated the truth in the word "greatest," but no one questioned the lumping of people around the same age, living within the same cultural boundaries, experiencing similar events in history, into a single entity, called "a generation."

Demographers study population statistics in order to understand structural factors that affect our everyday lives in particular ways. Like our ethnic backgrounds, our gender, our sexual orientation, when we are born affects how we view the world and how we are viewed by the world. When people around the same age experience transitions in life around the same time, demographers refer to this as a "birth cohort." When people in a particular birth cohort are conscious about the life changes they are experiencing together or they begin to be thought of as a group by themselves or others, demographers refer to that experience or thinking as a "cohort effect." When members of that birth cohort experience major social trends or historical events together, it is called a "period effect."

Brokaw asserted that people born between 1910 and 1925 sacrificed and triumphed through World War II from 1939 to 1945, had common experiences and were of a common good character. Brokaw therefore asserted that a certain age cohort, after experiencing important period effects, became a cohesive group and could safely be thought about as being from a particular group with a particular character.

This is, of course, something we do frequently: Bobby-soxers who came of age in the prosperous 50s; Baby-boomers who came of age in the turbulent 60s and 70s; Generation Xers who came of age in the greedy 80s; Gen Yers who have never known life without a personal computer.

Period effects are the stuff that marketing focus groups and best-selling books are made of. But do cohort effects have meaning in our everyday lives? Because some of life's transitions commonly happen around the same age for most people, a certain feeling of cohesiveness occurs when people of the same age meet together and think of themselves as a group.

To explore how important is it to be sensitive to these social groupings, we recently visited the Fairfield Activity Centre Society at New Horizons in Cook Street Village. Twenty-seven years ago, a group of 15 seniors formed a club in the Fairfield area of Victoria in an effort to connect with other seniors and have activities together. Ten years ago, after raising $400,000, mostly from seniors, the group helped purchase the building on Cook Street that also houses three stories of condominiums and a home health care organization. The Fairfield Activity Centre holds 26% ownership of the building and relies upon help from the City of Victoria as well as membership fees and fundraising events to continue in its efforts. The organization boasts between 950 and 1050 members each year, including 10 of the founding members who remain somewhat active. Most of the members come from the Fairfield area, but some of the members live as far away as Duncan and Sydney. The centre is open 7 days a week, and social, educational, and recreational activities are offered for older adults, including fitness training, weight training, dancing, crafts, computer classes, group dinners, coffee klatches and afternoon teas. The facilities are also available for renting to other community groups and activities. In short, the facility is an important landmark in Cook Street Village and an important resource in the Fairfield community and the Greater Victoria area.

We spoke with several members at Fairfield Activity Centre and asked them why it was important to have a place specifically available to seniors. Their answers suggested that cohorts feel comfortable with each other and that offering a place that caters to their age group was important for their health and well being. More than mere labels, people born close to each other find camaraderie with others who are going through the same transitions, such as retirement and the loss of loved ones and friends.

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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