November 2011

Why older people staying on the job is far from bad news for younger ones

It’s common knowledge that older workers are staying on the job longer, reversing historic retirement trends. Meager savings and trashed portfolios mean that many can’t afford to quit. Social Security no longer penalizes those who continue to earn. And the great majority of older workers is employed in the education and health sectors, which aren’t physically demanding.  This is bad news for those hungrily eying their La-Z-Boy recliners, but “there is a lot to like in this surge of experienced workers,” writes Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser in an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times.  More salaries generate more tax revenue; seasoned talent is valuable; and it’s not a zero-sum game in terms of the job market.

A persistent assumption is that when older people stay on the job, fewer spots are available for the next generation. That’s a fallacy. The job pool is not finite. Otherwise the expansion of the female workforce in the 20th century would have put hordes of men on the street, for example - but it didn’t.  New workers and older ones have different skill sets and compete for different opportunities. The amount of work is not fixed, nor is its nature.  As Glaeser writes, “It’s a mistake to imagine we can fix the problem of youth unemployment by encouraging older workers to retire." (Age discrimination in the workplace is a lousy idea too.)

In fact, counterintuitive though it may seem, the current trend may be good for young workers. “It’s not that older workers never crowd out younger workers, but there are myriad ways in which older workers also increase employment among the young. As older workers earn more, they can afford to buy more products produced by the young. Older workers may be entrepreneurs who employ younger workers, and they may pass along valuable skills to the young,” Glaeser writes.  

He also points out that by at least one measure (self-employment) the elderly are often the most entrepreneurial Americans. “I’m not suggesting that West Palm Beach is likely to become the next Silicon Valley, but we shouldn’t pooh-pooh the independent economic activity of the elderly, either.” Many boomers want to keep working, ideally with the flexibility that self-employment offers.  As I’ve written about at length, a job conveys not just income but enormous social and psychological benefits. Glaeser ends his piece with a salute to former colleague John Kenneth Galbraith, who worked well into this 90s because he found it fulfilling.  Why, then, title his editorial  “Goodbye, Golden Years?” Who says only leisure is golden?

Life Gets Better by Wendy Lustbader: a good book with a glaring flaw

It’s always good to encounter work that pushes back against the prevailing “it’s-all-downhill-from-here” narrative, and Wendy Lustbader’s Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older does just that. Lustbader points out that in contrast to the doubts and insecurities of youth, growing older enables us to come into our own, to become more self-aware and confident, less fearful of being judged, and authentically happy.  Not that life gets easier, but that it becomes easier to focus on what truly matters — and that makes it better.

Just as an Impressionist painting becomes coherent only at a distance, a lifetime, Lustbader writes, is a journey whose full meaning only becomes comprehensible over time. This truth is inherently inaccessible to the young, to whom “sorrows in later life seem so relentless that . . . we conclude that old age must be a dire time, indeed. It is only later that we find that fresh life evolves out of each grief.” Continuous renewal seems like a lot to hope for, but hers is a welcome challenge to the equation of aging with physical deterioration.

Being terminally impatient, I particularly liked an epigraph from Adrienne Rich: “A wild patience has taken me this far.” Also a quote from a professor named Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot that sums up a key paradox of later life: “figuring out how to navigate this tension between slowing down and speeding up, between mining the privileges of a well-earned patience and responding to the imperatives of time racing by.” I live with a man whose wildly imaginative bucket list grows longer all the time — more to look forward to, yet more to leave undone and come to terms with.  

Citing Grey Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn — “Interdependence is the truth of our lives.\” — Lustbader is articulate about care-giving and the nuanced relationship between giver and receiver. Eloquently addressing the loss of autonomy that accompanies disability, she writes, “Courage in late life has a lot to do with letting go . . . . Especially when illness exposes us to need, we may enter an unnerving time of appraisal.” This reassessment can bring unexpected benefits. Abandoning preconceived notions about how time should be spent can liberate. Limitations demand improvisation. Lustbader tells of a woman who was told at 71 that she was losing her central vision and that it was incurable:  
“An avid reader, she grieved hard and long. Then she decided to hold a book give-away party. She retained a single row of her most cherished books. To her surprise, three friends offered to visit weekly to read aloud to her. She began keeping three books going at a time, so that each reader could pick up where she left off. One of her readers told me, ‘I look forward so much to these afternoons. It’s the only time I stop rushing around. Plus, there’s nothing like being immersed in a good novel with a friend.’ Reader and listener, giver and receiver, became indistinguishable.”

On a lighter note, Lustbader described an acquaintance in her mid-80s who had stopped leaving her apartment. “A lady does not go out in public without her high heels,” she explained, and she now had severe arthritis in her toes, and “the young are so disparaging.”  The compromise? She bought ugly athletic shoes and took daily spins around the neighborhood — at dawn. I’d rather be stuck in Crocs for life than get up any earlier than I have to, but I admire the way this woman held onto both her independence and her sense of propriety. Recalibrations like these are a dance between pushing back and letting go, for everyone involved.

Life Gets Better is filled with compelling stories and sound advice, gracefully delivered by a compassionate person skilled at helping families traverse, the last stage of life and its conclusion. Self-knowledge can only be acquired the hard way, and Lustbader possesses it in abundance. The significant achievement of Life Gets Better is that it overturns overly negative stereotypes about what it’s like to grow old and confronts overly positive ones about how swell it is to be young. “Our society’s attitudes are backwards,” she says in an interview included in the book’s press kit. “The societal message is that in youth we should be having ‘The time of our lives,’” a stereotype that feeds anxiety and self-doubt in twenty-somethings trying to make their way in the world. It’s no less ageist than its late-life counterpart: old age is devoid of growth or pleasures.

Given all this wise counsel, what’s my beef?  The fact that Life Gets Better begins and ends with the individual, reinforcing the notion that each of us is responsible for how we age. (This post about Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided describes the costs of American’s focus on self-improvement.) “We make our own fate,” writes Lustbader.  Well, yes, but that fate is also shaped by powerful external factors: class, race, and gender. “When we are young, it is difficult to live on our own terms.” True, but it is also elusive for older people unless they’re independently wealthy. Material surroundings mean nothing at death, agreed, but they certainly inform the experience up until then.

As Lustbader’s language in the interview shows, she’s not averse to framing the issue in political terms. But she never addresses what gives rise to the grim scenarios she seeks to repudiate. Why is it inconceivable for the high-heels addict to imagine any response to her walking shoes besides scorn, when from the window of her childhood home Lustbader admired an older neighbor’s morning constitutional? What makes it so hard to ask for help when we need it? Reactionary policies that frame access to a modicum of health care and financial security as wasteful “entitlements,” and that have Americans from mid-life on terrified of becoming “burdens” to their families, their doctors, and their government. In fact, government should protect its citizens against these fundamental fears, just as it protects us from spoiled food and unsafe buildings. Resources for older Americans are not inherently scarce; their allocation reflects political priorities. Gratitude and optimism are essential in late life, but anger and collective consciousness have their place as well.

I’m sure Lustbader is acutely aware of her good fortune (family, job, financial security) and she’s earned her intimate knowledge of late life with 30 years a social worker in the trenches.  But she disappointed me by omitting any discussion of the ways in which our attitudes towards aging are socially constructed.  Variables that powerfully affect the life course and over which individuals have diminishing or no control — race, class, and gender — go virtually unmentioned in Life Gets Better. I wish Lustbader would broaden her important argument and engage on a political level. An argument that begins and ends with the individual ignores the larger factors that make it hard for the vast majority of Americans to age calmly and confidently. For them, life won’t get better.

I know - I’ll just erase my age from the internet and then I won’t get old!

Like everyone else, Hollywood agents use the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to get the scoop on different actors’ careers, including their ages.  Now an “anonymous 40-something actor” is suing IMDb for revealing that number, and three major actors’ unions are supporting her. The Screen Actors' Guild, Sag, and Aftra have all condemned the website because they “strongly believe that businesses like IMDb have a moral and legal obligation not to facilitate age discrimination in employment."

Check out their logic. Their joint statement declares, “An actor's actual age is irrelevant to casting. What matters is the age range that an actor can portray.”  That’s the point.  Casting decisions should be made on the basis of talent and appearance, not chronological age. Does the entertainment industry discriminate on the basis of age?  All the time, especially against women.  But the solution lies in confronting the discrimination and changing ageist attitudes, not in attempting to hide your age from the world — as if that were even possible today.