The Case for Putting Seniors in Charge of Universal Pre-K | Opinion

The Build Back Better Act, still hanging in the balance, includes $400 billion for universal pre-kindergarten along with considerable subsidies for child care. That's enough money to dramatically change the lives and prospects of millions of American children and families—but for one unanswered question: Given today's crippling labor shortages, where will we find the workforce to provide care and education for the country's youngest students?

One of the most compelling and overlooked solutions resides at the other end of the age spectrum, in the vast and growing older population. We need an intergenerational early childhood Caring Corps as ambitious as the Climate Corps the administration is proposing.

The Caring Corps could start at 100,000 elders helping young children read, learn, and develop, then climb to 1 million elders over the six years of the administration's early childhood mobilization and investment.

The appeal of older people as a major care-force for young children starts with the numbers: There are now more people over 60 in the U.S. than under 18. But it doesn't end there. Older people constitute a reservoir of resilience built for this very task.

People in the second half of life are a natural army for youth. Research in human development shows that this population has in abundance the attributes and capacities critical to care: patience, persistence, and emotional regulation, among others.

What's more, working with preschoolers would provide multiple benefits for older adults. The opportunity to retool for second acts focused on education and child care would provide a source of modest but important supplemental income in later years. The job would also offer a bulwark against loneliness and purposelessness. And it would improve older adults' mental and physical health, research shows.

Now is the time to launch a bold national effort that builds on this experience and expands it dramatically. To mobilize an army of elders helping children in their early years, the Caring Corps could combine public, philanthropic, and private funding. It could place elders in paying or stipended roles ranging from classroom assistants to reading tutors to playground aides. It could unite local efforts in ways that create a shared identity, spirit, and cause.

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Turning all this promise into practice, at a scale commensurate with the opportunity and the need, will require fresh thinking and decisive action. But it won't require starting from scratch; already tens of thousands of older people are working and serving in early childhood settings.

One of the most impressive efforts is the Foster Grandparent program, a War on Poverty creation from the 1960s that helps lower-income older people become grandparent-like figures to young people, including children at Head Start centers and preschools. This year, 20,000 Foster Grandparents are working as AmeriCorps Seniors in all 50 states, many devoting 20 hours a week to the children in their care.

At the same time, a host of innovative activities are underway in communities around the country. At Gorham House in Maine and more than 100 other places across the country, preschools are located adjacent to senior centers and housing, providing daily opportunities for connection. At the Rainbow Intergenerational Learning Center in Miami, older people provide care to preschoolers while retraining for careers as early childhood professionals.

The Caring Corps can do so much more than just tapping the goodwill of people over 50. It can offer elders a small but significant source of funding. It can offer opportunities for older people to form bonds not only with children but with teams of their peers for learning and friendship. It can incorporate training to help elders work effectively with preschoolers and also earn certification in professional and paraprofessional roles in early learning. This is where free or subsidized community college might be an especially strategic investment.

There are obvious and inevitable hurdles to overcome, starting with the fate of Build Back Better's expansion of early childhood programs in the Senate. The immediate challenge of COVID and the longer-term challenge of low pay in the early childhood field will need to be solved in any scenario.

But we have an opportunity now to revolutionize care up and down the age spectrum, while providing a new and growing pipeline for the early learning workforce. We have the chance to extend the value of grandparents and other elders beyond families, all while making use of the largest source of untapped human capital in the nation today—and one that's only going to increase in the decades ahead.

The payoff of a vast intergenerational Caring Corps will be enormous, for the youngest generation, for older people themselves, and for our sense of interdependence and connectedness across the ages.

Marc Freedman is the CEO of Encore.org, a national nonprofit working to bridge generational divides, and author of How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations. Carol Larson is the former president of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The views in this article are the writers' own.