Thirty-five years ago, in his landmark portrait of the turbluent ‘60s, historian Theodore Roszak coined the term “counter culture.” Now he’s publishing a sequel of sorts, The Making of an Elder Culture, a look at the potential for the change-makers of yore to shape an elder-dominated society. How likely is it, he asks, that “a generation numbering millions — who were ready to doubt everything and try anything — will settle, in their later years, for their parents’ idea of retirement any more than they settled, in their youth, for their parents’ idea of success and happiness?”
Just coincidence that end-to-end stories in this week’s New Yorker magazine feature two men in full stride at 80? Street-fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham, who turns 80 this month, produces a wittily-themed, weekly feature for the New York Times and covers his beat on a bike. The other was architect Frank Gehry, whose field (unlike, say, mathematics) favors those over 50. “I have plenty of work,” he told critic Paul Goldberger at the star-studded eightieth birthday party he threw himself last week. “I don’t feel like eighty. I guess you never think you’re the age you are, and, as long as you don’t look in the mirror, you aren’t.”
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.
Unless he’s traveling, Harold Burson can be found in his corner office at Burson-Marsteller, Inc., the giant public-relations firm he founded in 1946. His parents emigrated from England in 1920 and opened a hardware store in Memphis, Tennessee, but were wiped out by the Depression. Burson’s mother supported the family by selling clothing door-to-door, and he declares that, “if she’d ever had $25,000 in capital, she’d have been Sam Walton.”
Here’s a really big number: $2 trillion. According to the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post, that’s how much disappeared from Americans’ retirement savings in the last 15 months. The upshot: Americans are going to have to work longer.
When I came out of the elevator at the Lighthouse, a century-old nonprofit for the people with vision loss, I wasn’t expecting a giant sign over the reception area reading “Eleanor E. Faye Low Vision Service.” I shouldn’t have been surprised. An ophthalmologist, Faye has worked there since 1956 and is a pioneer in the field of low vision: the rehabilitation of people who are visually impaired.
Several people whose opinions I respect have mentioned Marc Freedman and his organization, Civic Ventures, so I found myself listening to an interview with Freedman on AARP’s Prime Time Radio. Talking about his new book (Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life), Freedman declares the nature of what it means to grow older in America to be “under radical revision. For a long time the dream in this country was liberation from labor. Now it’s becoming a dream around the freedom to work.” [emphasis his]
Maybe we think it’s like teeth: if the first ones don’t fall out on schedule, there’s no room for the second set. Or like the forest canopy: there’s only so much sunlight and an awful lot of leaves. Is the number of good jobs fixed? Do all ages compete for them?