Coming of Age


Addressing the National Industrial Conference Board in 1952, Mutual Life Insurance Company Vice President H.G. Kenagy urged America's major corporations to begin preparing employees for retirement at age 50. Representing a pension industry hungry to increase sales, Kenagy called upon the assembled companies to do a better job promoting the idea "that old age can be beautiful, and that the best of life is yet to come."

At the time, prosperity and Social Security were making retirement, for the first time in American history, a mass phenomenon and not just a condition of the wealthy, the infirm, or those forced out of work and unable to secure new employment. Yet retirement was still a grim business- a "roleless role," to quote the leading academic gerontologist of the day. Walter Reuther was more blunt, describing this state as "too old to work, too young to die." The pension purveyors realized that it would be difficult to get people to spend money on retirement unless something more appetizing- something indi viduals might actually look forward to- could be sold. In searching for a new conception, they seized on the image of aristocratic leisure, depicting retirement as a well-earned rest characterized by liberation from responsibility. Graying as playing.

It was, indeed, a leisure magnate named Del Webb who probably did more than anyone else to successfully recast this long-despised stage of life into a vision of the American dream. Beginning on January 1, 1960, with the opening of his first Sun City outside Phoenix, Webb launched not only the retirement community movement but a marketing barrage selling later life as "the golden years" (a phrase his company coined, along with an array of long-forgotten labels like "the new leisure set"). The promoter/developer- descended from an evangelist on one side and the person who built California's first irrigation system on the other- captured the imagination of the population he referred to as "55 and better." He built it, and they came. On Sun City's opening weekend, 100,000 people showed up to check out the five model homes situated on a golf course. (Webb was the man who put golf into retirement, building dirt-cheap tract housing amid the links.) With the retirement community becoming the emblematic institution of the era, the developers and pension purveyors and the vast leisure industry that followed quickly in their wake succeeded in elevating "the golden years" to the reigning ideal for later life, transforming the older population into America's true leisure class.


Four decades later, on the eve of an era when the graying of some 76 million baby boomers will leave us with between a fifth and a quarter of the population over age 65, another representative of the financial services industry has come forward to tell us that we've had too much of a good thing. In a series of jeremiads, Peter Peterson, who was Richard Nixon's secretary of commerce and is chairman of the Blackstone Group investment firm, has emerged as the point person for an assault on Social Security and Medicare, asserting that the country simply can't afford these programs as we grow older.

While critiques of Peterson's dire fiscal predictions have filled many articles in The American Prospect and other journals of opinion, and need not be recounted, it is stunning how successful this man, the Concord Coalition he co-founded, and the Wall Street interests underwriting much of this work have been in commandeering the debate about the aging of American society- and reducing what will undoubtedly constitute one of the most profound social changes of the coming century to a narrow question of entitlements.

At the center of this campaign of gloom are two Peterson books, the first his 1996 volume Will America Grow up before It Grows Old? (distilled into an Atlantic Monthly cover story), which asserts that "Americans seem to think they have an inalienable right to live the last third of their adult lives in subsidized leisure" and provides a whole new collection of catchphrases to remind us that we can ill afford an upsurge in Barcalounging geezers, including not only "graying means paying," but "demographic time bomb," "fiscal Disneyland," and a particular favorite of Peterson's, "a nation of Floridas."

Three years later, we now can find a rewrite of Will America Grow Up on the shelves of our local bookstores. In this new wake-up call, Gray Dawn (as in, "This is no time for mirth and laughter, it's the cold gray dawn of a morning after"), Peterson has shifted from America to the world, in the process adopting a nautical motif. With the book's jacket positioning Peterson as the watchman on deck while the world moves ever closer to the shipwreck that is global aging, full-page advertisements for Gray Dawn depict- you guessed it- an ominous, impassable iceberg with the warning "GLOBAL AGING DEAD AHEAD," asserting that "A Demographic Iceberg Threatens to Sink the Great Powers."

It seems the rhetoric from Peterson and his followers in the media gets more shrill and their imagery even more apoca lyptic as the numbers they use are revealed to be vastly overstated and the radical measures they push are shown to be unwarranted.


However, while the press seems fixated on scenarios of a coming demographic doomsday, a new collection of books has appeared that begin a long- overdue conversation about one of the most important aspects of the aging society: the role and responsibility of older men and women. The first of these books, John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn's Successful Aging, is pitched to a self-help audience but is in fact the scholarly culmination of a 10-year Mac Arthur Found ation initiative studying individuals who navigate their way through later life without succumbing to premature ill health, social isolation, or a sense of uselessness.

The authors begin by using their research to demolish seven prevailing myths about aging, including "To Be Old Is To Be Sick" (citing, for example, studies showing that from 1982 to 1994 disability in the over-65 population fell 15 percent) and "The Elderly Don't Pull Their Own Weight" (showing that our society fails to count much of the unpaid work older adults contribute, including caregiving at both ends of the age spectrum). However, Rowe and Kahn's principal contribution is to show that lifestyle- by which they mean decisions within the hands of most individuals- accounts for 70 percent of what they call "successful aging," while genes are only 30 percent of the equation. Previously gerontologists had put the balance exactly the opposite way.

In particular, Rowe (a former Harvard Medical School geriatrician, now president of Mount Sinai School of Medicine) and Kahn (a professor emeritus of public health at the University of Michigan) emphasize the importance of what Freud called "love and work" as the backbone of a lifestyle supporting prolonged phys i cal and mental well-being in later life. By love and work, they mean close personal relationships and ongo ing opportunities for productive activities, especially those that help strengthen the social fabric and benefit future gener ations. In this, they pay homage to the great psychologist Erik Erikson, who upheld "generativity," the work of providing guidance to a younger generation, as the hallmark of successful development in later life. They draw as well on insights from the pioneering gerontologist Robert Butler, who in the 1970s first offered "productive aging" as the appropriate successor to the 1950s ideal of late-life leisure. Yet today, older men and women still remain a greatly "under utilized resource," Rowe and Kahn argue, concluding that "the great challenge to policy makers and leaders of organizations is how best to tap the experience, energy, and motivation of older people."

On the heels of Successful Aging came The Virtues of Aging, an auto biographical account from America's best-known successful ager Jimmy Carter. Carter embodies everything that Rowe and Kahn preach- and is the walking antithesis of the greedy-geezer stereotype that is Peterson's bogeyman. Sam Nunn once remarked that Carter was the only man who ever used the presidency "to achieve a better position," and it is striking to witness someone who reached the apex of achievement in mid-life both find greater fulfillment in the so-called retirement years and arguably wield an even more substantial impact on society here and abroad.

Indeed, in The Virtues of Aging and elsewhere, Carter and his wife Rosalynn have been unequivocal in proclaiming later life "the best years of our lives." After being ousted from the White House at age 56, Carter (and Rosalynn) wrote Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. In the nearly 20 years since, they have made good on the claim, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, establishing the Carter Center, helping to bring rich and poor together through the Atlanta Project, teaching Sunday school, serving as agents of international peace, climbing mountains, and writing prolifically about all these experiences in both narrative and verse.

The Virtues of Aging describes these activities in a succession of folksy essays (including one about the Carters' marriage and their still vital sex life) and is peppered with epigraphs like "We worry too much about something to live on- and too little about something to live for."

For all its pop wisdom, the book remains a serious piece of work, one that not only depicts a later life well-lived but also makes a convincing argument that the third stage of life can be more than a second childhood- it can be a season with its own special virtues. "The virtues of aging," Carter writes, "include both the blessings that come to us as we grow older and what we have to offer that might be beneficial to others." For Carter, graying can amount to a kind of payoff- both for individuals and, potentially, for a society in desperate need of the skills and experience these individuals so abundantly possess.


Theodore Roszak begins his new book on aging, America the Wise: The Longevity Revolution and the True Wealth of Nations, with an account of personal crisis. In his late 50s, Roszak faced health problems that nearly cost him his life and that would have likely done so a generation earlier, in the absence of medical techniques widely available today.

That close brush with death forced Roszak- a historian as well as a prolific novelist and social critic- into premature retirement. Faced with the prospect of death, he transformed his lifestyle in much the manner prescribed in Rowe and Kahn's sections on how to live a healthy later life. The end result was dramatic. "When the ordeal was over," he writes, "I discovered I was in better health than I had known in thirty years." He also realized, with immense gratitude, that he would likely live for another 20 or 30 years. "I decided to use [my retirement] to get serious about life," he writes. "Had I not been serious before this, during my first fifty years? No, I had simply been busy. I had been overscheduled, anxious, job-career-and-money worried. In brief, I had been a passably normal adult."

However, Roszak, the author of The Making of a Counter Culture (1965) and other books of sweeping analysis, is not content with recounting his own saga or, for that matter, imparting advice to third agers about how to wring the greatest fulfillment out of this new phase of life. His purpose is to announce a humane and progressive social movement lurking in the aging of baby boomers. Where Peterson spots an "iceberg" that will bring us down, Roszak finds a tide capable of lifting us up. In particular he places his faith in that first wave of baby boomers entering later life, the '60s generation whom Roszak named "the counter culture" 30 years ago and whom he now sees gaining a second surge of idealism as they finally are liberated from the constraints of mid-life.

"Somebody who no longer has to worry about raising a family, pleasing a boss or earning more money," Roszak predicts, "will have the chance to join with others in building a compassionate society where people can think deep thoughts, create beauty, study nature, teach the young, worship what they hold sacred and care for one another." Altogether, he sees these individuals transforming later life as we know it, making it into a much richer time while using their accumulated wisdom to counterbalance the "world-beating ambitions of the young." In other words, he sees something resembling a generation of graying boomers (whom he awkwardly terms "the new people") leading Jimmy Carter- like lives. And rather than bringing on economic stagnation, as Peterson predicts, the new people- as Roszak envisions them- will form the nucleus of a new "compassionate economy" capable of revitalizing civil society.


Taken together, these accounts provide compelling alter na tives to the bleak vision of Gray Dawn and suggest powerfully that there is an underutilized social asset in the older population and, further, that a new movement mobilizing these individuals to bolster our communities might be carried forward not by altruism alone but also on the much sturdier wings of mutual benefit. These books are short, however, on strategies for getting from where we are now to where we must go. While Peterson is vulnerable to the criticism that he knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing, Roszak, Carter, and Rowe and Kahn have some of the reverse problem.

Still, their books constitute the beginning of what should be a real debate- a debate whose dynamics should not be obscured by the seeming agreement on all sides that older adults should contribute more to American life. Beneath that surface consensus lies an entire spectrum of motives and visions.

For most critics of older adults and pessimists about the aging society, the contribution of older men and women is to be through the marketplace and is seen primarily as a way of postponing public pension payments and improving the long-term solvency of Social Security. For advocates of the older population, allowing more opportunities for older adults to contribute means honoring what every study suggests older adults want to do, which is to remain a vital, integrated part of society.

One end of the spectrum is defined by Robert Samuelson's recent review essay in The New Republic, "Off Golden Pond." According to Samuelson, we "need to reject the platitudes that the elderly can contribute to society by volunteering or offering 'wisdom.'" He adds, "This may be true, but it is a tiny truth." (One wonders how Samuelson would characterize women's unpaid contribution to communities over the generations: another tiny truth?) "The main way that older Americans can contribute," Samuelson concludes, "is by doing the same thing that other adults do: that is, by working, and not becoming a premature social burden."

Samuelson's perspective fails to recognize that what really matters is not the form of the work of later life (we need to encourage a wide variety of forms, paid and unpaid, part time and full time), but the content. Without undermining the right of older adults to pursue a variety of options, we must cultivate particularly those contributions that promise to provide the greatest benefit for individuals and society- in other words, the biggest win-win situations for everybody and all generations.

In making these determinations, we might begin with an understanding of the virtues of aging- those "particularly beneficial advantages" that Jimmy Carter seeks to describe- working to identify the best fits between these gifts and the great unmet needs of our communities. This is a quest that leads directly, as Roszak correctly asserts in America the Wise, to the realm of time, not only in the fact that older Americans have the time to do much of what so desperately needs to be done in our society, but also because having this additional resource of hours (retirement frees up 24 hours a week for men, 18 for women) often leads to something else: a different relationship to time.

My interviews with hundreds of older adults over the past decade suggest that many have precisely the asset that we lack in this ever faster-paced society, a "luxury" that might be termed slowness. Older adults are in a unique position to break past the busyness of mid-life and take on those essential tasks in society better done slowly, those tasks not susceptible to the logic of efficiency, principal among them the cultivation and deepening of relationships.

Nowhere is this need more profound than in the lives of the younger generation, so many of whom are starved for caring and guidance as they attempt to navigate an increasingly treacherous path to adulthood. Indeed, it's hard to miss the win-win fit with the need of older adults for relationships that span the generations. In the words of one commentator, "It is time to do elders the honor of making their phase of life one of ongoing contribution- of genuine 'generativity,' to use Erik Erikson's classic description- as long as they are willing and able." He urges new service roles in child care, education, health care, and other areas that include the opportunity to be generative.

The commentator is not Theodore Roszak or Jimmy Carter but rather Peter Peterson (the kinder, gentler Peterson of several years back). And this outlook- which might involve either paid work such as Peterson favors or the forms of volunteering admired by other authors discussed in this essay- constitutes a vision of older adults' role in American life that is worth rallying around.


Realizing this vision would also fulfill a promise inherent from the outset in Social Security- a program Peterson loves to hate but one that has played such a central part in making economic security, independence, and sustained vitality central features of later life for most Americans. But secure for what, independent for what, vital for what? Today, for a substantial segment of the aging popu lation, an earlier generation's answers no longer apply. As survey after survey makes plain, these men and women are no longer content to spend a third of life putting on the sidelines. They want a life that still matters. At the same time, society needs them more than ever. There is a fit here, a potential social windfall, but it requires a new notion of later life, of the kind one can begin to discern in Rowe and Kahn, Carter, Roszak, and even, tangentially, in Peterson- and also revamped institutional arrangements.

The good news is that we won't have to start from scratch, thanks in part to a wave of experimentation already underway. For example, across the country there is an upsurge in medical clinics staffed primarily by volunteer retired doctors, nurses, and other health professionals, providing free health care to those who have no other access to high-quality medicine. In over two dozen cities, a new national service program, the Experience Corps, is mobi lizing men and women over 55 to transform urban, public elementary schools into more caring, humane places. There are numerous other examples of creative new vehicles aimed at matching the untapped resources of the aging population with urgent human resource needs.

The problem, of course, is that these efforts, for all their recent growth, remain far too small in relation to the possibilities. We continue with only half an aging policy in this country, one pri marily concerned about the needs of frail seniors. As the population of the oldest-old continues to grow in the coming decades, we will undoubtedly need to expand and improve these measures. But to unlock the vast social asset present in the aging population, we need a policy response in this area as well, one commensurate with the immense scale of the new demographics- something akin in scope to the GI Bill, capable of helping tens of millions to successfully manage the transition into a new life stage and to do so in a way that could usher in a new era of individual and social renewal.

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