At 50, Karl Pillemer had a revelation about his career. After 25 years as gerontologist, he found himself focused almost entirely on problems like elder abuse and isolation: “the Book of Job for older people,” as he put it at the 2012 Age Boom seminar for journalists. This conformed to the general portrayal of olders as frail and debilitated, and was reinforced by researchers “because focusing on problems is how we get funding.” But not only had this stopped feeling fulfilling, it didn’t jibe with his actual experience, and so an outreach project was born.
Stuff I'm reading
Stuff I'm reading in the mags, books and the blogosphere.
Most animals, from shrimp to shrews, decline swiftly after reaching sexual maturity. Humans, on the other hand, experience middle age: a several-decade plateau during which most biological systems deteriorate very little. This stage of life, argues writer and zoologist David Bainbridge in this excerpt from Middle Age: A Natural History, represents a remarkable evolutionary achievement that should gratify, not depress.
Imagine a bunch of 35 year olds and a bunch of 85 year olds. Which is happier? The 35-year-olds, right? That’s what each group answers. But ask each to assess its own well-being and the older people come out ahead. This fact surprises (even me! even though I’ve written about it a lot!) because we’re so deeply conditioned to envision life after youth as decline. Yet it turns out that “Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.”
That’s the witty title of an opinion piece by journalist Patricia Cohen, who’s just published a book called In Our Prime: The Invention of Midlife. I’ve been struck by how much her undertaking resembles the one I’ve set myself. The review in the New York Times opens with “An upbeat look at middle age? Patricia Cohen had her work cut out for her.” Sounds familiar.
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.
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.
I didn’t make up that battle cry, but I’m appropriating it. It’s Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s line, and I read it in Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America, her superb screed against ageist practices that are being institutionalized by powerful cultural forces: free-market capitalism for starters, along with anti-unionism and eroding job seniority the weakening of ADEA and small-government dogma. An age scholar at Brandeis, Gullette has enlarged my viewpoint in the best possible way — and gotten me further riled up.