Growing old isn’t new. What’s new is how many people routinely do it. The institutions around us were created when lives were shorter, and the culture hasn’t had time to catch up. The way we respond to this demographic shift has critical social implications.
“As thousands of baby boomers each day surge into their 60s and 70s, it’s time to focus on enriching lives, not just lengthening them; on providing purpose and productivity, not just perpetuity,” writes Marc Freedman, the esteemed founder of Encore.org, in the Wall Street Journal in an article titled “How to Make the Most of Longer Lives.” I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and spoke at Encore’s annual conference last October.
Freedman has lots of excellent suggestions: name this new phase of life; make education more older-learner friendly; create new secular and spiritual rites of passage; help olders to work longer and to finance their “unretirements”; forge cross-generational compacts. It’s vitally important to come up with new roles for older people, along with new ways to sustain and support them. But Freedman’s call for social innovation is missing a critical component.
Civil rights leaders carved out new space for African Americans by challenging racist behaviors and beliefs, like the “separate but equal” doctrine that sanctioned segregation. The women’s movement enlarged women’s lives by challenging sexist behaviors and beliefs, like unequal pay and the exclusion of women from most professions. How can we make space for longer lives without confronting ageist behaviors and beliefs, including pervasive assumptions that older workers are disposable, older women, undesirable and older people, nothing but burdens on society?
Freedman sidesteps the need for change this radical. He writes, “Life extension without social innovation is a recipe for dystopian disaster—what one critic characterizes as ‘the coming death shortage,’ invoking images not only of endless (and unaffordable) retirements but of a society loaded down by a population explosion of the idle old.” He’s right about the recipe for disaster, but I wish he’d explicitly disavowed the repellent phrase “death shortage” and not hitched worth to “idleness.” Keep busy or else?
How we age is governed by a vast range of circumstances not of our making. Class, temperament and luck all play a part. While most of us aspire to lifelong personal and financial independence, many of us will not be able to achieve it. That shouldn’t impinge on our right to stay alive, not to mention the right to want to stay alive—one of the first casualties of internalized ageism. Older people's contributions to society should not be measured in terms of conventional economic productivity, nor by how “busy” we are or are not. Those are retrograde and discriminatory standards.
Freedman’s progressive suggestions are compelling and far reaching, and I hope we’re working towards a society that will implement them. But they operate within a system that perpetuates and profits from age discrimination. Like the movements that challenged entrenched systems of racism and sexism, overcoming ageism is going to take a lot of determined people challenging the way things are. That means a lot of difficult conversations not just about health care and housing but about when society stops valuing people and why—not because we grow old, but because we do so in an ageist world. Those difficult conversations are essential if we want to create a world of age equality: one in which people can find meaning and purpose at every stage of life.