The aging of the post-war generation is not a surprise. For decades pundits have warned of a coming intergenerational conflict pitting the needs of aging boomers against younger generations.
I was just interviewed on the “Politics of Aging” in regards to my upcoming participation in a panel discussion on the same topic at the Poetics of Aging conference in San Francisco in November (ChangingAging is also a sponsor of this exciting event — formal announcement coming soon!). I was asked what pro-aging advocates have to say about this inevitable question: is providing for the needs of older people a zero sum game in which the young are robbed to care for the old?
My first response was to point out the fallacy in the argument. Our entitlement programs are based on a social compact in which we all pay in with the expectation the programs will be there for us in our old age. Yes, politicians have a tendency to promise more in future benefits and services than we can afford. Yes, adjustments will have to be made to keep the programs solvent. But no, that does not change the terms of the compact in which we all contribute and we all benefit. It is not a zero-sum game.
Secondly, I said the arguement is based on a “declinist” point of view that is widely
universally embraced in contemporary American culture and absolutely rejected by pro-aging advocates. When aging is viewed only in terms of decline the conversation is inherently limited to the negtive aspects of aging. The social capital of elderhood and the important role it plays in society is ignored. The potential for human growth and development are ignored. In short, from a declinist perspective old people are seen only as a burden.
What then, the interviewer asked, is the alternative to a “declinist” viewpoint? It’s not just a point of view that aging leads to death — it’s a fact. And dying of old age is not cheap. What are these so-called benefits, how do we measure them and more importantly how do we convince society to embrace them?
How indeed? I can’t deny it will be an uphill battle to change the modern declinist paradigm. But changing that paradigm is what ChangingAging is all about. So I’ll give it a shot:
On the individual level research indicates happiness and self-satisfaction increase significantly in the second half of life. Given the value we place on happiness in our culture that should get most people excited about growing old. On a cultural level, we can thank senescence for the vast majority of folk art, according to research by the late and great Dr. Gene Cohen. A neuro-scientist, Cohen helped prove the concept of neuro-plasticity — that our brains continue to develop and grow our entire life. In fact, most people experience a liberation and explosion of creativity late in life, Cohen argued. Dr. Bill Thomas writes in “What are Old People For?” that evolutionary theory points to grandmothers as perhaps humankind’s greatest competitive adaptation. We are the only species that lives beyond our child-bearing years, and rather than being a burden on primitive human communities, it is believed grandmothers contributed to reducing infant mortality and therefore the success of our species. And traditionally, elders have played an essential role in guiding younger generations, providing wisdom, acting as peace-keepers and generally tempering the rashness and excesss of youth.
I could go on, and hope readers will back me up with a few more examples. But the real question is how do we actually convince our society to embrace the virtues of aging? What can we actually do to combat ageism and reduce our society’s debilitating obsession with youth? What is the roadmap for creating the kinds of sustainable, intergenerational communities that can benefit from and support elders and elderhood?
I have a very simple answer to that question. But I would like to hear what readers have to say first.