The Joy of Aging

15647Today we have an exciting guest post from the author of the just-published new book Aging in America: A Cultural History. Lawrence R. Samuel is founder of Boomers 3.0, a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations create meaningful relationships with baby boomers in their third act of life. He is also author of several previous books, including Freud on Madison Avenue: Motivation Research and Subliminal Advertising in America, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Aging in America, tracing the cultural history of aging in the United States over the course of the last half century and vividly demonstrating the ways in which getting older tangibly contradicts the prevailing social values and attitudes of our youth-obsessed culture. Because of this, Samuel argues, tens of millions of adults approaching their sixties and seventies in this decade do not know how to age, as they were never prepared to do so. Here, Samuel connects the insights of his book to his own personal story of aging.

I’ve been thinking a lot about aging recently. Turning 60 a few months ago no doubt has much to do with it, as many consider that number to be the official entry point to one’s third (and final) act of life. But it wasn’t just reaching that milestone that triggered my preoccupation with getting older. Five years ago I had my first child, and I could not help but tumble the numbers to estimate how long I’d be around for her. I’m a (mostly) full-time dad, so that too has made me very aware of my age. Almost all the moms and dads I run into at school and on the birthday party circuit are in their 30s, making me somewhat of a freak of nature. My daughter is so far blissfully unaware that I’m an older dad, but I can’t escape that fact, especially when well-intended people approach me to ask how old my beautiful granddaughter is.

I didn’t use interviews in the writing of my new book Aging in America, but that didn’t stop me from asking quite a few people how they felt about getting older. I was surprised to find that many people said they just didn’t think much about it, as there was little point. It was just something that happened, they felt, a regrettable biological process that one had relatively little control over. It is true that Americans invest billions of dollars in all kinds of “anti-aging” treatments and therapies in the attempt to fight off the ravages of age, but I think down deep they even know it’s mostly a lost cause. Scientists have devoted tremendous effort and resources to try to solve the “problem” of aging, but they still don’t really understand why our bodies insist on getting older, much less know how to slow or stop the process. One can't stop the march of time, making aging, like being born and dying, one of our very few universal experiences.

Learning that many folks don’t think much about aging was particularly surprising for me, because I view aging as a profound experience that shapes one’s whole outlook on life. Given the undeniable centrality of aging to the human experience, I believe both individuals and society as a whole should give more thought to the subject. We are a youth-obsessed culture, of course, making that a significant challenge. A big part of why many do not want to think about aging—except as something to try to avoid—is that we tend to focus on just the negative, i.e. physical, aspects of the process. One’s beauty declines as one ages, it is generally believed, especially with regard to women. There is mental decline as well, the story goes, only adding to the fear and loathing attached to the subject. Getting older is also seen as antithetical to our core national values of energy, vitality, and “busyness.” With such a depressing (and mostly false) narrative, is it any wonder that America views its older citizens as unattractive people without much worth? “What can people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s contribute?” they wonder, all of this misinformation accounting for why aging is such an unpopular topic.

How can aging become a more popular- and more truthful- topic?  Through a broader recognition of the joyful gift it can be.  Although some will find such a counterintuitive idea hard to believe, it is an insight that could be of great value as America and the rest of the world gets grayer. I am a far more content person that I was at 30 or 40, something many people my age have reported in research studies. A certain kind of emotional wellbeing or “life intelligence” is acquired over the years, perhaps because one simply has greater experience in different kinds of situations and can thus better keep things in perspective,. Wisdom, for the lack of a better word, is apparently hardwired in the human aging mechanism, explaining why the “elders” of many societies were assigned the responsibility of passing on knowledge to younger generations. A contemporary version of that practice can be found  in the workplace, where baby boomers are becoming increasingly recognized for possessing a trove of knowledge that cannot be replaced as they make their exit; this knowledge needs to be transferred to millennials so they can effectively manage the company, corporate executives understand, in a rare appreciation of the value of older people.

The positive dimensions of aging, especially the wellbeing it often brings, need to be better documented and more compellingly expressed in order to counter the unhealthy attitudes Americans have toward getting older. It's a tough row to hoe, but one well worth it given the stakes involved. 65 million baby boomers are rushing headlong into their 70s, an unprecedented demographic phenomenon that has major social and economic consequences. We need to start viewing older citizens as an asset rather than as a liability, an idea that baby boomers are more than ready to embrace. Boomers like me are rejecting the standard model of retirement en masse, viewing the prospect of moving to a “Del Boca Vista” (the fictional condominium complex in Florida of Seinfeld fame) as an unattractive option for their later years.

Rather than duplicate their parents’ version of retirement, members of my generation are approaching aging in an integrated, holistic manner by working as long as possible and staying put where we currently live. There is an economic dimension to this, of course, but approaching one’s later years as an opportunity for continued growth and productivity takes full advantage of the “life intelligence” many older people have realized. As well, with older people not being siloed off from the rest of the population, there is a greater chance that they will remain an active, dynamic presence in local communities, something that bodes well for the future of aging in America.  Inserting joy into the conversation of aging offers us the greatest chance of making the subject more palatable, however, happily a likely scenario as more baby boomers discover that their third act of life is turning out to be their best.