Without Rites of Passage, What Does the Future Hold for Young Adults and Their Older Counterparts?

Congressional representatives have introduced a bipartisan bill, the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act (S.3964), which meets need with opportunity. If passed, the bill will provide national service for younger adults and older adults — through AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, respectively. The National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) operates both programs.

Rites of Passage

In each of our lives, we experience rites of passage to indicate the end of one phase of development and the beginning of the next phase. We often share these passages with our peers and family members. The emergence of COVID-19 has left tens of millions of people in limbo because of the risk of infection. What that means in real terms: rites of passage — including but not limited to baptisms, bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, weddings, and funerals — are no longer occurring as they did in the past.

The pandemic has triggered a humanitarian rite of passage that includes many of the hallmarks of crises such as abandonment of habits, social isolation, danger and possible death, profound ambiguity, and an unknown outcome. In many ways, our worldwide shared experience is a coming-of-age for humanity with new-found roles and responsibilities. This ambiguity is enhanced and exasperated for younger adults who are just now coming of age. For both society and young adults, this experience lends new meaning to the term “arrested development.”

Rites of passage include three phases:

  • Separation,
  • Liminality, and
  • Incorporation.

Separation — Separation is preliminary, or pre-liminal. In the Roman Empire, the Ides of March was multipurpose; it was a time for monthly sacrifice, festivals were held to conclude the new year (spring), and debts were settled. In 2020, each of these turned on themselves — as pandemic victims died, many unnecessarily; spring-break celebrations segued to semi-permanent separations; and students began to default on loans after losing jobs, income, and confidence.

Liminality — Liminality means “threshold.” In the midst of a humanitarian crisis, we are all, in one way or another, in a state of limbo; plans are on hold indefinitely, and those ceremonies that mark beginnings and endings are taking place over the internet, if at all. Young adults are at the forefront as they stand at the threshold, unable, through no fault of their own, to move forward when considering college and/or careers. Young adults’ status, identity, and destination are indeterminate, for lack of ceremony to signal graduation and commencement.

The liminal phase in any passage is intense — so it’s typically a short transition before return to society’s structure and stability, regained with participants’ new identity, typically guided by elders who serve as ceremony hosts and guides.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, liminality is turned on itself, upended and extended. Usually, liminality involves a significant change of a persons’ status in society. Now, there is compounded change to society. Liminality usually has a way in and a way out; but not now, or soon, as the pandemic and its circumstances are ongoing, despite the feeling that time seems suspended.

Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, doorways, passages, transitions, time, and duality is depicted as having two faces that look to the past and to the future. As with Janus, rites-of-passage participants face the past and future while on the threshold, in limbo.

As a brilliant facet of self and society, the personal experience of liminality is accompanied and actualized through communitas, a Latin term that refers to an unstructured community in which people are equal, allowing them to share in a common experience and to bond. The amalgam of liminality and communitas becomes the currency of self and society. Before John Locke re-minted the term “currency” to describe the circulation of money, it meant a condition of flowing.

Through life, we “flow from and flow to,” implying our reliance on others for the interaction that is inherent in circulation and exchange. We do not “go from and go to,” because to do so implies independent action and self-actualization.

Humanity’s flow is described by psycho-social phenomena: a psychological effect is salient in liminality while a social effect is most expressed in communitas.

Incorporation — Guided through transformation, individuals re-enter society with a new status that includes roles and responsibilities gained and maintained in concert with community. This final phase is marked by communal celebration and re-acceptance. Having felt disembodied, now incorporated individuals regain their body — corpus, in Latin — and their sense of self in society.

Incorporation can be thwarted or aborted when liminality is chronic — especially in large-scale societies that lack adequate ceremony hosts. Today, young adults endure chronic liminality in three ways:

  1. The Modern Age,
  2. The coronavirus age, and
  3. Their aim to take off and ascend.

For a plane to take flight, flow provides lift. With flow separated, lift is impeded, leading to stall. On a blue-sky day, an adept pilot may restart the engine and regain control and course. During times of turbulence, recovery may not be realized. Young adults are losing flow, and lift — while they weather storms over unfamiliar territory. For now, here is the lay of the land:

Seniors in the class of 1997 were advised to wear sunscreen by Mary Schmich, in her self-described Guide to Life for Graduates.

Seniors in the class of 2020 are advised to wear masks. Seniors’ spirit, identity, and life languish in limbo. Poised to gain greater height, some seniors stumble.

“No culture would be foolish enough to devise a ritual sequence that stops at the liminal. Without a return to normality and background structures that one can take for granted (at least until they are shaken again), individuals go crazy and societies become pathological. Human life ceases to be meaningful in perpetual liminality.” — Bjørn Thomassen, Liminality and the Modern: Living through the in-between, 2018

2014 restoration of the The Apotheosis of Washington fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. United States Capitol dome, rotunda. Washington, DC.

National Service

Help is on the way, spurred by our action and our advocacy.

Congressional representatives have introduced a bipartisan bill, the Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act (S.3964), which meets need with opportunity. If passed, the bill will provide national service for younger adults and older adults — through AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, respectively. The National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) operates both programs.

I propose that AmeriCorps and Senior Corps forge new partnerships to couple young adults with older Americans as co-mentors. In so doing, America will help guide emerging (and older) adults out of limbo through national service and employment. Together, “seniors” — young and old — will provide a democratic, patriotic, unifying rite of passage for themselves, and for America.

The Cultivating Opportunity and Response to the Pandemic through Service (CORPS) Act was introduced [link will be provided, once posted on Congress.gov] on June 16 by Senator Chris Coons, who provided this summary:

“[The Act] would double the number of AmeriCorps positions available this year to 150,000 and provide a total of 600,000 service opportunities nationwide over the next three years to unemployed youth and others looking to assist their communities. These positions could support a variety of response and recovery efforts based on community needs...”

Senator Roger Wicker, original cosponsor, added:

“Helping our nation respond to and recover from the coronavirus outbreak will require an all-hands approach. Boosting the ranks of our service corps is a cost-efficient way to get communities the help they need. I am glad to join Senator Coons in introducing the CORPS Act, which would enhance our national service programs and provide participants with the resources they need to endure this crisis. With their contributions, I am hopeful our nation can emerge stronger than ever before.”

AnnMaura Connolly, President of Voices for National Service, added:

“The CORPS Act…underscores the tremendous bipartisan support for AmeriCorps and Senior Corps and the critical role these programs are playing in helping their communities respond to and recover from COVID-19…. The CORPS Act invests in the strong and capable national service infrastructure that has been deploying citizens of every background in service to their communities for decades. In addition to expanding AmeriCorps and strengthening Senior Corps to help communities… The CORPS Act will give young people experience, skills, a living stipend and post-service education scholarship at a critical time.”

The CORPS Act is supported by over 150 national service and public health organizations countrywide. If enacted, the CORPS Act (summarized in a one-pager) participants will develop new skills, be provided a living stipend, and offered post-service education scholarship opportunities. The CORPS Act is based on the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act that Senator Coons introduced in the Senate in May, with a companion bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative David Price.

If enacted, the CORPS Act will provide national service to foster a new rite of passage between personal development and engaged citizenship, between school and society, between emerging and older adults. Partnerships between AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps would do that‚ while building capacity countywide and re-incorporating emerging adults, and their elder mentors.

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is the federal agency for service, volunteering, and civic engagement to help meet community-identified needs. Programs and projects focus on disaster services (COVID-19, included), economic opportunity, environmental stewardship, education, healthy futures, and veterans and military families. The agency includes:

  • AmeriCorps, which “…places thousands of people into intensive service positions where they learn valuable skills, earn money for education, and develop a strong sense of civic responsibility.” Today there are 75,000 members serving fellow Americans at 21,000 locations. Over one million alumni have served fellow Americas and, in turn, benefited from their national service. AmeriCorps includes three programs: NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), State & National, and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America)
  • SeniorCorps, which engages more than 200,000 volunteers age 55+ who serve their communities through service and civic engagement through three programs: Senior Companions, Foster Grandparents, and RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program).
  • Update — “A July 2020 study by economists at ICF found that every $1 that Congress appropriates for AmeriCorps and Senior Corps returns over $17 to society, program members, and the government,” as noted by AnnMaura Connolly, President, Voices for National Service.

Separately, on June 11 Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced a bipartisan bill, S.3943A bill to amend the Domestic Volunteer Service Act of 1973 to establish an online service platform for volunteers in the National Senior Service Corps. Senator Bill Cassidy is the original cosponsor. Both senators have joined colleagues to cosponsor the CORPS Act.

To End Ageism, Return to Engageism

Seniors are 18, 21, and 65. Ageism starts (very) early. Ageism creates ghettos for the young and the old, as expressed by Bernice L. Neugarten in 1974. So scripted and confined, we “act our age” until “our number is up.”

When we play life as a numbers game, we are bound to lose. For most of humanity, chronological age played an insignificant role in society. In America, ageism (née: age consciousness, age stratification, or age grading) started in the mid-19th century, in tandem with industrialization, with life and living constantly constrained by the clock, over the cycles of the seasons.

Young Americans were separated by age into grades in school — which, in turn, separated youth from society. By the mid-20th century, older adults were also debilitated by age segregation — through policies that forced retirement, marginalization and welfare-ization, with “much of the social dependency of older people [being] artificially created.” In 2019, the term “ageism” turned 50; it was coined by Robert Butler in an article by Carl Bernstein titled, “Age and race fears seen in housing opposition,” in The Washington Post (March 7, 1969).

Understandably, young Americans focus on personal academic grades. Of equal concern should be how academia has graded students, by age. After almost two decades of education, the debilitating effect of chronic ageism could provide a teachable moment. It doesn’t; school’s out. But, through graduation and far beyond, ageism continues; Mary Schmich’s wear sunscreen guide to seniors is titled, “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.”

Ageism imposes an opportunity cost to all society, and to every day along the way. Intersectionality doesn’t have an expiration date. To help justice heal and come of age, we must address how the debilitating social prejudices of other “isms” are compounded by ageism.

To abolish ageism, let’s return to engAGEism — generation to generation, for generations. As with the seasons, old age is never a terminal stage, but one where life comes full circle, made possible when we pass on the baton, another rite of passage.

Encore! Encore!

“Uncertainty as to the next act, whether to reach or not, gives the motive to examining the act. The end to follow is, in this sense, the stimulus.” — John Dewey, Philosophy and Civilization, 1931

Elated audiences repeat “Encore! Encore!” to summon the actors back onstage to honor them, again. The encore may be a short, repeat performance; or a surprise that surpasses, strengthened by the unity of community in concert and chorus, with actors and audience sometimes all taking center stage to realize re-incorporation. Rites of passage punctuate theatrical stages — and our life stages: those most personal, those scaled society-wide, and those that set the stage for future generations.

The genius of genus sapiens is that we pass knowledge and wisdom from generation to generation. For the human race, there is only one race. Here, it’s not about how fast we run but how we pass the baton — from generation to generation, for generations yet to come. It’s not a play, it’s how we play — how we relay, by coupling courage and grace. This processual and playful order becomes a selfless, not selfie, moment as our vision is that we have no generational division. Our shared binocular vision imparts a multidimensional depth to the moment, informed by past passages, for our future.

Let’s call for an encore — here: an entire act, the CORPS Act — to bring younger adults back center stage as lead actors in their own lives, strengthened by supporting actors: older adults as guides; and to bring younger adults out of limbo to re-incorporate with society, with their citizenship strengthened by engagement through mentor-ship.

America has experience and expertise, both in community and nationally, as judged by the proven success of projects involving the public and private sectors — Experience Corps, for example. As expressed by Experience Corps:

“We inspire and empower adults age 50 and older to serve in their community and disrupt the cycle of poverty by making a lasting difference in the lives of America’s most vulnerable children.”

In keeping with the continuity and congruity it envisioned, Experience Corps was born of mentor-ship and partnership: mentor-ship by John W. Gardner with Marc Freedman; and partnership with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) through a focus on Senior Corps (Foster Grandparents, RSVP), launching pilot programs, which soared — as chronicled by Freedman in his most recent book, How to Live Forever: The enduring power of connecting generations, which is required summer reading — not for an academic course, but to inform our life course. Freedman recognizes and realizes “younger and older people being the twin bulwarks of the national service movement.” In 2011, the AARP Foundation adopted Experience Corps, toward stewardship at scale.

For 20 years — a generation — Marc Freedman has been CEO and founder of Encore.org, “a nonprofit dedicated to bridging divides, connecting across generations and creating a better future together.” As expressed by Freedman, “Experience Corps was, and is, an important step and a proof of concept.”

Through experience and expertise, by example Encore.org informs the potential and promise of the CORPS Act, especially when generations get together, as seniors (young and old) head to their next act, together.

“In 2016, Encore.org launched the Generation to Generation (Gen2Gen) campaign to engage many more older adults in the lives of young people. We built partnerships with more than 250 organizations, developed best practices for engaging older adults in nonprofit work, provided mini-grants to activists working in real life, and shared inspiration and ideas with tens of thousands of people via email and social media.”

Through the CORPS Act, the federal government will empower each of us to act. Through the National Civilian Community Corps, federal agencies will help each of us gain agency to act — and to do so more, in our next act—guided by public-private partnerships and best practices.

Call to (Next) Action

  • Contact your Congressional representatives and urge them to cosponsor the CORPS Act.
  • Express how a mentor or mentee changed your life. Contribute a response below.
  • End #ageism through #engAGEism, generation to generations, for generations.

Update, July 30 — Abbreviated as a blog post for the National Center on Elder Abuse, a program of the U.S. Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living.

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