Over the past year, I have presented Sightlines findings to a variety of audiences. Lately, as I have been preparing my talks, I take a beat at the beginning. It is challenging to articulate the rationale behind looking at prevalence rates broken down by six very different life stages. Why do we bother comparing age groups at all? Isn’t this like comparing apples and oranges? This may be one reason why many people don’t.

Each age group is at a different point in life, dealing with different sets of challenges (e.g., Boomers are dealing with empty nests, or welcoming home adult children; Millennials are starting careers and figuring out their identities). Each group is also situated in their own generation-specific context. The Boomers entered adulthood during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war; the Millennials did so in a post-9/11 world, wading through the financial crisis. I would argue, however, that much like the apple farmer could learn from the orange farmer how to better cultivate soil, and how the orange farmer could learn from the apple farmer how to minimize infestation (with non-GMO and organic methods, of course), each age group can look to the other to learn best practices and avoid pitfalls in healthy living, financial security, and social engagement.

Most research and news pieces focus in on one age group or one generation. For myself, I have spent the past 15 years doing research on aging, so the need to compare the old and the young is practically reflexive at this point. Yet, beyond that small corner of the scientific universe, this often seen as a novel, sometimes pointless endeavor.

Focusing in on one age group is likely the result of pragmatic thinking, driven by the relevant goals of a particular field. For instance, there is the market research angle –we care about studying the generation who makes up a large part of the economy and figuring out how best to service that emerging or growing market. Here, age groups are examined in silos because they have different sets of needs and values by virtue of where they are at in life combined with how they like to manage their circumstances, which was shaped largely by the state of the world when they grew up. This cultural, generation-specific model makes sense when looking at certain Sightlines outcomes like home ownership. We may care more about the Millennial generation and how they make decisions because they are just now entering the real estate market during a very tenuous time–and comparing their home ownership rates to their 65 year old counterparts doesn’t provide us with much insight.

Another approach is the gerontology research angle – we care about studying older adults to help them navigate old age successfully. The latter is often based on a biological model of aging which assumes inevitable decline in old age. Here, old age is of special interest because it is assumed that due to physical decline, there is more urgency to assist older adults in overcoming the many challenges they face. This biological model may make sense when we are thinking about physical activity – the number of Boomers engaging in recommended physical activity has enormous economic implications in the here and now – and comparing them to their 25 year old counterparts seems futile given obvious differences in physical strength and stamina.

But if we take a more inclusive point of view and rise above common assumptions about a generation or a particular stage of life, there are many individually actionable behaviors that we know matter regardless of age group. Let’s take the healthy living domain as an example. We know that diet is critical to well-being throughout the life span. As illustrated by Sightlines, more 75+ year olds are eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables compared to 25-35 year olds. From this, we learn two valuable pieces of information: 1. We may need to focus more effort on getting young people to eat better, and 2. We can look to 75+ year olds as a model for dietary choices. In regards to financial security, we can make similar conclusions when considering having access to emergency funds. In social engagement, volunteering may serve different purposes for the young (e.g., to build one’s resume) and the old (e.g., to find meaning).

According to Sightlines, however, less than 1/3 of Americans across age groups volunteered in the past year with the exception of 35-44 year olds. In this case, the old might learn from the young how best to engage with their communities (e.g., through schools).

What I love about this project is that by comparing apples and oranges, it breaks down the walls of how we typically think about aging. We do not limit ourselves to one particular age group, nor do we limit ourselves to conceptualizing aging only in terms of a battle against inevitable decline. All ages can stand to improve their physical, social, and financial health, albeit for different reasons and with different consequences. But ultimately, we break Sightlines findings down by age group to see who needs the most help, and to whom we can turn to offer that help.