When we’re young, the masses on the far side of some distant threshold are Old. This habit – sorting people into Old or Young - sticks with us as we grow up, and it’s too bad. In an ageist society, the old/young binary consigns two thirds of the population to the less desirable side. The divide also belies experience, because it doesn’t exist. We’re always older than some people and younger than others. Age is a continuum.
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.
I’m lucky to be working with writer-editor and extremely sharp friend Marisa Bowe, who co-edited a terrific book called Gig: Americans Talk About Their Job at the Turn of the Millennium. She’s been reviewing my interview transcripts, and pulled the following quote out of my talk with Eddie Lewis, who worked for forty-three years as a milkman before getting hired by the local funeral home. “How come you didn’t get a job with better hours?” I asked, after prying out of him the fact that he’d never liked the 2:30AM wake-up call. “I don’t know. I never thought of it,” Lewis replied.
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?”
People who hear about this project say, “Great idea!” They also say, “Don’t you think you should include people under eighty?”
Nope. For one thing, people who work into their eighties aren’t unusual enough. Eyebrows don’t raise. Secondly, while seventy is within striking range for my indulged and potent generation, eighty still seems old — on the far side of the delusory divide between “us” vs. “them.”