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.
There’s a lot of disagreement around how to frame the last century’s unprecedented increase in human lifespan. Is it a crisis or an opportunity? Will a “grey tsunami” of incapacitated freeloaders sweep us off our feet, or will we tap into the social capital of millions more healthy, well-educated adults? Are longer lives a blessing or a curse? Experience and ideology shape the responses, of course, but there’s one thing both liberals and libertarians can agree on. What single characteristic of these older Americans will make the most difference? Their health. Living longer looks a lot more attractive when it’s uncoupled from cognitive and physical decline. It’s a lot cheaper too: illness is expensive.
The cover story of the October 2014 Atlantic magazine, “The New Science of Old Age,” features a white-bearded skateboarder careening between two articles that encapsulate American ambivalence about longevity: here’s why our kids could significantly outlive us and how awful that would be. Below, my Letter to the Editor calling out the unacknowledged ageism that saturates both articles, followed by more examples.
Laura Helmuth, Slate’s science and health editor, answers that question in this engaging article, explaining why “It’s the best time in the history of the world to be a child, a parent, or a grandparent.”
Over the years I’ve attended a number of Age Boom Academies—seminars for journalists co-hosted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, the Journalism School, and the International Longevity Center. The speakers are always impressive and it’s provided an invaluable overview of the evolving economics, logistics, and science of the longevity boom. As my own focus has sharpened I’ve enjoyed them more, and this year’s seminar, which wrapped up on Tuesday, September 10 at the office of the Atlantic Philanthropies, was the best yet.
That’s the title of a piece by Tim Kreider on the New York Times Opinionator blog, and I hope it’s not news to everyone who passed me the link. Some of Krieder’s other eye-popping observations: you’re not getting any younger. You have to say goodbye to your childhood home. The old and infirm are pretty much missing from movies and TV. (There’s a term for that: symbolic annihilation.)
A great post on the New York Times's New Old Age blog, titled "Older People Become What They Think," describes the link between health and what psychologists call "age stereotypes": beliefs—many of them subconscious, dating back to childhood—about what it means to get older.
I attended my first Age Boom Academy for journalists in 2008 and have returned several times since. This year was particularly rewarding, because now I’m able to put the speeches in context and because I’m honing in on a specific question: why are Americans, individually and collectively, so deaf to all but the negative messages about old age? After all, no one wants to die young, and no one disputes that the elimination of premature death is a remarkable achievement.