Some months back, I dipped into a small bookshop to pick up a volume on career transitions for people older than 50. I was stunned to find it on a shelf with the heading “Aging and Death.”
The memory has stayed with me, a metaphor for our fundamental misapprehension of where aging fits into the human experience. And it’s far from the only example. Recently, I came across a social work graduate program with a concentration in “Older Adult/End of Life Care,” a formulation that would seem to posit death as the singular focus of the years after middle age. It’s a perspective neatly encapsulated in this line from a Forbes piece: “It won’t be too long before baby boomers begin migrating from factory floors and corner offices to wheelchairs and adult diapers.”
Actually, it will be. We’re living longer than ever before. In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.
And aging isn’t something that begins only as we prepare to depart this world. It begins at the beginning, the moment we are born. Adolescence, adulthood, mid-life—all are points of transition, each one involving gains and losses. Aging is a lifelong process, and the experience of being an “older adult” is one that, for most of us, is likely to last decades.
Faced with the so-called gray tsunami, it’s time to revise cultural assumptions about what it means to grow older. We cannot afford to continue as we are. For one thing, few of us are able to save enough money for a retirement that could last four decades or more. As Stanford longevity expert Laura L. Carstensen writes, our retirement model “was built for short lives, not long ones.” For another, the world has myriad unfilled needs, with older Americans perfectly positioned to contribute a vast reservoir of talents. This awareness is giving rise to proposals to develop and expand service corps programs for people in their 50s and beyond, both to support the next generation and to provide care for seniors who need outside help —further highlighting the vast range of capacities among older Americans.
Happily, there is growing recognition that the years after 50 constitute a vital stage of life, one where the desire to create a meaningful legacy, what Erik Erikson called “generativity,” takes on new importance. Along with books on career transitions for those who in a previous era would have been approaching retirement — Marci Alboher’s “The Encore Career Handbook” was the one I’d gone in search of — this recognition is giving rise to reflective accounts of what it means to move into this unique and largely uncharted stage of life, books such as Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s “The Third Chapter,” Mary Catherine Bateson’s “Composing a Further Life,” and Marc Freedman’s “The Big Shift.”
We also are seeing the proliferation of initiatives, large and small, aimed at re-envisioning the aging process. A rebranded AARP — the “RP” that once stood for “retired persons” now stands for “real possibilities” — has launched “Life Reimagined,” whose mission is “to help you figure out what you really want, and then start to make that happen.” Encore.org, an organization for which I do some consulting work, awards an annual Purpose Prize, which gives $100,000 to people older than 60 who are creating new ways to solve tough social problems. Meanwhile, well-known service organizations, including the Peace Corps and Rotary, are expanding their outreach to older Americans, and nationwide, colleges and universities are exploring creative ways to tap into and serve the aging population.
At the same time, old stories of aging persist, subtly and not-so-subtly undermining the work we need to do. Far too often, we are trapped in what writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie memorably called “a single story,” in this case one about what aging is and isn’t. What makes the aging-as-prelude-to-death narrative especially dangerous is that the association often goes unnoticed. It does not present as a story. It presents as truth. When we see the words “aging” and “death” conflated — as I did on my bookshop visit — it’s a small nudge toward thinking of aging as the exclusive terrain of endings instead of, as it also is, a realm of beginnings.
This is not to say that death is not an essential topic of conversation. Indeed, just as we’re seeing an efflorescence of writing about the so-called encore years — a time of meaningful contribution — we also are seeing groundbreaking books aimed at transforming our dysfunctional approach to end-of-life care, with its current focus on extending life with little attention to what makes life worth extending. Among the most impressive recent entries: Ai-Jen Poo’s “The Age of Dignity” and Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal.” We need to address the serious and growing shortage of geriatricians and others trained to deal with these issues — a critical need that the social work program I pointed to is seeking to fill.
But while end-of-life issues are crucial, they are not synonymous with aging. We need to grasp that there are (at least) two conversations here, both important but also separate. Yes, we need to grapple with the realities of end-of-life care, to give thought to what it means to die a good death in a youth-obsessed culture and how we can make that the norm rather than the exception. But we also need to write a new chapter in the book of aging: to figure out how to make the most of what Stanford’s Carstensen calls our “super-sized lives.”
We baby boomers (soon to be joined by our GenX peers) have few guideposts to follow in designing fulfilling and productive lives for 30 more years. This makes it all the more important that we both recognize the issue at hand and talk to and learn from one another. For now, our proper focus is not “aging and death.” It’s “aging and life.”