That’s a question that Dr. Laura Carstensen regularly fields after explaining why older people are happier than younger ones—the basis of the ubiquitous Happiness U-curve. As I admit in my talk, I didn’t really believe the curve existed until I understood why. Carstensen, a psychologist and the founder of the Stanford Longevity Center, explains it beautifully.
In October 2010, demographer Philip Longman warned of a “’gray tsunami’ sweeping the planet." The phrase summons a frankly terrifying vision of a giant wave of old people looming on the horizon, poised to drain the public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations out to sea. Journalists jumped on it, and “gray tsunami” has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.
In a New York Times op-ed titled “On Dying After Your Time”, prominent bioethicist Daniel Callahan concludes that we should help young people become old, but that when it comes to the old “our duty may be just the reverse: to let death have its day.” It provoked these rebuttals from me and from my colleague Elizabeth Schneewind:
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.”
By way of swag, everyone attending last week’s five-day Columbia Journalism School Age Boom Academy on “Covering the myths and realities of aging in America” received a canvas tote packed with print hand-outs. I was struck by a juxtaposition between two that I read the first night.
Two friends sent me links to a piece by James Ridgeway’s piece in the Guardian about the future of growing old in America.(Bottom line: not looking good. Better to be British, though not for long or by much.) What caught my eye wasn’t the greedy-geezer-rebutting statistics that millions of older Americans can expect to keep working or to be poor – or both. It was the first line: “In her remarkable book The Coming of Age, Simone de Beauvoir observed that fear of aging and death drives younger people to view their elders as a separate species, rather than as their own future selves.”
A friend pointed me towards this insightful article in the Economist about what I’ve been calling the “U-shaped happiness curve." (In Britspeak, that’s “U-bend.”) It attributes widespread corroboration to “a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being,” and observes that the U-bend shows up consistently and globally across 40 years’ worth of data, even when scientists control for cash, employment status and children.