Susan Jacoby writes cogently on all kinds of topics dear to my heart, including feminism, anti-intellectualism, and the separation of church and state. Her new book, Never Say Die, is a tirade against “The Myth and Marketing of The New Old Age.” I think she’s got a lot of stuff right, especially when it comes to the grim economic prospect of the baby boom - and the ethical and logistical challenges of caring for an aging population. I agree that the notion of the “wisdom of old age” is politically expedient claptrap. But I take issue with the book’s central premise that life after 80 holds little but horrors.
I encountered that chilling phrase, “age apartheid,” in a New York Times Magazine piece by Ted C. Fishman, whose book The Shock of Gray was published last month. He’s talking about China, whose older workers have been largely excluded from the economic boom. “No country sorts its population more ruthlessly by age,” writes Fishman.
The heart of the matter, concisely put by the ILC-USA’s Executive Director Everette Dennis in his opening remarks at this annual journalism seminar, is the “perception of aging as a social problem versus as a great human achievement.”
That’s how you spell “aging” in the UK, and that’s Guardian columnist Zoe Williams’s take on this week’s US Census Bureau report on the unprecedented aging of the world population. Calling out an alarmist press for presenting this demographic shift as either a crisis or a burden, she exposes the standard fallacies, pointing out that people will continue to work well past traditional retirement ages and be healthy enough to do so.
I’ve been working on the Introduction for the book proposal, and am delighted by the fact that a number of ideas fell nicely into place. One of them was the framing of three central paradoxes of aging well. The first I knew intuitively. The third one was a complete surprise when I encountered it through my reading; then (duh!) I realized that it mirrored my own experience. The second one I only figured out a few weeks ago, while trying to synthesize research findings.
Current research into the relation between work and longevity describes an intricate web. “A constellation of work-related factors — whether you're employed, how secure you are in your job, how much you enjoy your work — may influence both your day-to-day health and how long you live,” writes Katherine Hobson in Newsday.
When I first heard the term “longevity risk”, I figured it was medical: a hazard associated with some new fountain-of-youth drug or diet. Silly me! It used to refer to the risk borne by pension funds or life insurance companies that guaranteed lifetime benefits. Then employer pension plans migrated to more volatile 401(k) plans. Then the market crashed and 401(k)s turned into 201(k)s. “Longevity risk” is now the chilly term for the prospect that more and more Americans will outlive their retirement savings, spending their final years despairing and destitute.
I’ve been wondering all along which personality traits contribute to a productive old age. Two researchers at the University of California, Riverside have nailed one for me: conscientious people live longer. Their study showed that conscientious people are less likely to take risks, to smoke or drink to excess, to gravitate towards more stable jobs and relationships — and to live an average of two to four years longer.