A Longevity Revo­lu­tion with an as­ter­isk

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY ELLEN GOOD­MAN Ellen Good­man’s e-mail ad­dress is el­len­good­man1@me.com.

When I re­tired from my ten­ure as a colum­nist last year, my daugh­ter re­layed the news to my grand­son, who promptly picked up the phone and, in his most se­ri­ous 7-year-old voice, said: “Grandma, I hear you’re tired.” Well, not ex­actly. My daugh­ter and I strug­gled to hide our amuse­ment from a mis­un­der­stand­ing that was not en­tirely lin­guis­tic. Af­ter all, re­tire­ment was once a mat­ter of ’ tire­ment. It was the for­merly new idea that we didn’t have to work un­til we dropped in place.

But writ­ing is not heavy lift­ing. I wasn’t leav­ing one ca­reer to swoon into the ham­mock. I was, rather, think­ing about re­newal — tweak­ing and try­ing new things.

Now my un-tire­ment seems to be some­thing of a trend. I am part of the first huge gen­er­a­tion to pass the de­mar­ca­tion line of se­nior cit­i­zen­ship with the sta­tis­ti­cal prom­ise of good times ahead.

As 2011 opens, the first of the baby boomers will turn 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day for the next 19 years. We are the lead­ing edge of what is op­ti­misti­cally called the Longevity Revo­lu­tion.

In lit­tle more than a cen­tury, Amer­i­cans have gone from a life ex­pectancy of 47 to one of 78. By 2025 there will be 66 mil­lion Amer­i­cans over 65. The de­ci­sions that we make in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively about how to spend this gift of time will re­shape the coun­try.

Al­ready, two di­verg­ing nar­ra­tives are com­pet­ing to re­place the “golden years” vi­sion of re­tire­ment as per­pet­ual R&R.

The first ap­pears in up­beat book ti­tles about the “ third age,” the “next step,” the “age of ac­tive wis­dom.” It’s en­coded in mes­sages from re­tire­ment plan­ners that are less about fi­nan­cial free­dom from work than about fi­nan­cial free­dom to work — at some­thing mean­ing­ful. As one Wells Fargo ad says, “ There’s one thing Dave has al­ways wanted to do af­ter he’s re­tired: keep work­ing.”

The idea of a post-re­tire­ment ca­reer, once an oxy­moron, is now em­bod­ied in the “en­core ca­reer.” The phrase ap­plauds and pro­motes peo­ple seek­ing pur­pose­ful work af­ter they bow out of one stage of life. It has be­come com­mon to read about a “re­tired” tool-and-die shop owner lead­ing a fight against coal com­pa­nies or a cor­po­rate lawyer cre­at­ing a non­profit to help Afghan farm­ers plant 8 mil­lion trees.

This nar­ra­tive of older age re­de­fines se­nior cit­i­zen­ship as less a list of en­ti­tle­ments than a work­sheet of con­tri­bu­tions. And it fits a pop­u­lar im­age of our gen­er­a­tion.

The ’60s gen­er­a­tion — the 1960s now in its 60s— has been the cul­ture’s change agents. We pushed for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. We also, for bet­ter and for worse, have a long his­tory of lead­ing ex­am­ined lives. So, we may be primed to make a dif­fer­ence in our older age.

But there is a com­pet­ing nar­ra­tive to my story of un-tire­ment. The Longevity Revo­lu­tion also comes with a warn­ing la­bel. It’s in end­less re­ports about the gray tsunami over­whelm­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care. El­ders are the prob­lem, not the prob­lem-solvers. They are even, in for­mer sen­a­tor Alan Simp­son’s charm­ing phrase, the “greedy geezers.”

In this al­ter­nate story, the at­ti­tude of baby boomers as they hit 65 is not re­newal. It can be summed up by the word used to de­scribe this co­hort in a re­cent Pew study: “glum.” In this eco­nomic plot, the Wells Fargo ad about the joy of work­ing af­ter work meets a coun­ter­mes­sage from Charles Sch­wab: “My wild re­tire­ment dream? Ac­tu­ally re­tir­ing.”

A cau­tion­ary tale shows el­ders hang­ing on, against the eco­nomic wind. The much-touted fix for So­cial Se­cu­rity sug­gests rais­ing the age of full ben­e­fits to 69. But un­em­ploy­ment and age dis­crim­i­na­tion have al­ready made a tough cli­mate for those who need to work.

These di­verg­ing nar­ra­tives are not the only choices fac­ing in­di­vid­u­als as we age. But they may frame cul­tural ex­pec­ta­tions. In one ver­sion older Amer­i­cans are a cru­cial, val­ued pop­u­la­tion re-up­ping to use our ex­pe­ri­ence and wis­dom to again change so­ci­ety. In an­other, we are bur­dens whose knowl­edge and use­ful­ness are past the sell-by date.

Which por­trait hangs over us is not just a per­sonal mat­ter. If I may trans­fer a phrase from one so­cial move­ment to an­other, the per­sonal is po­lit­i­cal. If our gen­er­a­tion were the cul­tural change agents, we were never as rad­i­cal as ad­ver­tised. We were on both sides of the cul­ture wars.

Add to that old di­vide the cul­tural as­sump­tion that peo­ple grow more con­ser­va­tive as they age. In­deed, the one age group that didn’t vote for the “ hope and change” mes­sage of 2008 was those over 65. The el­ders who al­ready had uni­ver­sal health care — Medi­care — were the least ea­ger to as­sure it for oth­ers. And in the 2010 elec­tion they formed a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Tea Party vot­ers.

How will we shape the Longevity Revo­lu­tion? I have the sense that if we don’t use this gift of time to open up new pos­si­bil­i­ties, we may go into a long, anx­ious crouch. If we are not the change agents of ag­ing, we’ll be the change re­sisters. In­deed, if we don’t feel needed and en­gaged as prob­lem­solvers, we may well be part of a grow­ing me-first se­nior pol­i­tics.

This is a moment to re­de­fine ag­ing, how we see our­selves and our coun­try. No, it’s not a time to be tired.


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