Did you know that two-thirds of the people who have lived to age 65 or beyond in all of human history are alive right now? Did you know that in the last hundred years we have gained thirty years in average life expectancy? Did you know that between 2000 and 2020, projected U.S. growth in the 55-64 age group is 73 percent, and in the 65 and over age group, 54 per cent?
This isn’t the first I’ve heard about growth in the elder population, of course. But usually, it’s cast as a burden, an economic crisis: how will a relatively small workforce support the growing needs of a massive and dependent population? The trouble is, this question is conditioned on a false idea of what it means to be old. Most of us have that magic retirement age—65—in our minds as the dividing line. But I just learned that 65 was set as retirement age when the first 19th-century European social programs were created, at a time when average life expectancy was close to 20 years younger.
Think about 65 year-olds you know: those who are not seriously ill are likely to be busy, active, the opposite of a burden. Many find themselves chafing at the social consensus that shifts them into the category of Old and Out of The Way. As a voting bloc, they have tended to retaliate by supporting their own immediate interests (e.g., social programs for the elderly) and opposing those that serve other segments of society (e.g., school funding). If we were to reset our definition of “old” to a point when debility is much more the norm, wouldn’t we make it ten, fifteen or even twenty years later? And mightn’t older people stay closer to the stream of life as a consequence?
I highly recommend a mind-opening podcast by Ken Dychtwald of Agewave, one of the excellent seminars available from The Long Now Foundation (scroll down to 2004 and you can click on different formats, or you can download it from iTunes’ podcast section: search for SALT—Seminars About Long-term Thinking). (Note: I didn’t much like Dychtwald’s take on our mutual generation in PBS’s The Boomer Century, but here he seems to know what he’s talking about.)
Dychtwald points out that with our present longevity, we are the leading edge of an unprecedented phenomenon. No one knows what it will be like to live in societies so characterized by age as ours is likely to be. It may have surprising impacts. For instance, the whole pattern of life could shift. If you had a reasonable expectation of long life, would you use your years in the compressed way prior generations did: get your education out of the way, commit soon to a line of work, have a family early? That mode would leave you with the growing problem many elders face today: a long final period of enforced inactivity, of being pushed to the side of society. Perhaps you would choose instead to adopt a cyclical pattern, with periods of education, work and leisure succeeding each other over the decades, with the prospect of multiple achievements and multiple satisfactions, of contributing to society well into your elder years.
Rethinking age entails some thorny problems, of course. No one wants to live longer if the long tail of life is shaped by illness and pain, so doing what we can to stay healthy and supporting the research that addresses debilitating disease make sense. In economic terms, in the U.S., on average, older people own more property and have more savings than the rest of the population. The principal exceptions are older women of color, but we are used to looking at the elderly as a unitary category and prescribing social programs that treat everyone the same. When the pendulum shifts and young people are harder-pressed, are less likely to have decent healthcare or housing—as is now becoming the case—how should the changing realities of age come into the social investment equation?
I have been thinking about my own age lately, as the birthdays mount up (and may they continue to do so!). I like the feeling of knowing more, of having seen a lot. I believe I have more to contribute, but that belief has acquired a blister where it rubs up against the internalized notion that time is running out. I keep feeling the pinch: whenever I am attracted to some new project or new subject I want to study, a little voice inside says that older people are expected to step aside, questions how useful my thinking might be to a world that is supposedly passing me by, or wonders how much time I will have to pursue something new.
Listening to Dychtwald’s podcast made me laugh to see how deeply I had internalized an idea about age that is in no way supported by my actual experience. It is not given to any of us to know the day of our death, they say, so I can’t begin to speculate whether mine will come soon or I will be vouchsafed the full 120 years that the bible and scientists tell us is probably the limit of human lifespan. But I love feeling that it will be a good thing for me and for the world if I make the most of it. And I will never think that “old” begins with 65 again.