Aging and Retelling the Story of Our Lives

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We are living longer. By some estimates, two thirds of the humans who have ever lived to the age of 65 are alive today. So what is the purpose of a longer life? Can society move from the current paradigm, in which an aging population is perceived as a liability, to a new one in which it is seen as a tremendous resource?

These questions facing society need to be asked now. Lifespans have increased and are likely to increase further. The stakes are high for government budgets, for ensuring quality of life, and for social wellbeing. But if the costs of ignoring such questions are enormous, so are the benefits of addressing them.

The Milken Institute, with support from the John Templeton Foundation, convened a group of experts at the Successful Aging Innovation Summit to discuss the way society views aging, to understand the connection between successful aging and beneficial purpose, and to consider a call to action. Thought leaders assembled from academia, media, business, faith, and nonprofit communities. Their conclusions have been published in a report, Aging and Beneficial Purpose in the 21st Century: The New Longevity Dividend. “We recognized the urgency of nurturing a new public narrative about aging,” says Paul Irving, a distinguished scholar in residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology who previously served as the Milken Institute’s president and has recently been appointed chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging. “There is an opportunity now for us to choose to redefine this stage of life as a new time of work, productivity, and purpose that might benefit everyone—young and old alike.” In other words, medical science has succeeded when it comes to extending life; now, the social sciences and other disciplines must catch up by reflecting on the implications and the changes needed to maximize opportunity and mitigate risk.

A crucial issue is that “health spans” are not aligned with lifespans. “People are living longer and better than at any time in history,” writes surgeon and public health researcher Atul Gawande in his latest book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. “[But] our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need.”

A related concern is the need to encourage greater self-empowerment and self-sufficiency into older age, Irving continues. A transformative factor is finding beneficial purpose because it is so wonderful for individuals as they age and so important for the greater good. “Many people have the prospect of an extended lifespan,” Sir John Templeton reflected in Worldwide Laws of Life. “Every individual is like a thread in a beautiful tapestry with a vital contribution to make, not only in the sustenance of life as we know it, but in the creation and development of more beneficial expressions of life.” This is a call to ensure that everyone is engaged in the kind of joint activities that improve their lives and, simultaneously, the lives of others.

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Younger generations need to see that older generations are good news for them too. This is what psychologist Erik Erikson called generativity—the task of establishing and guiding younger generations to be productive and creative. Erikson noted how being generative yields a great sense of accomplishment for those who are older, as well as offering something of great value to those who are younger: encouragement and wisdom. Irving highlights mentoring and intergenerational engagement; volunteering in schools and other educational settings; collaborating in business environments; and engaging in civic activities.

Such change is a challenge to the imagination, like learning to tell different stories about the arc of our lives because that arc has evolved. This is partly an issue of how the business world relates to age. Currently, it tends to be dominated by concerns around retirement thresholds, which increasingly makes little sense because categorizing people by age does not capture their value or productivity. The findings of positive psychology might help with finding new stories for our lives, too. For example, research shows that the periods of our lives when we feel most content and satisfied are in youth and older age.

“Faith communities need to be engaged as well,” Irving adds. “The rituals of religions are traditionally weighted towards birth, the passage into adulthood, marriage, and then death. That made sense until the rapid changes in longevity in the past century or so. Now, religious leaders might ask how to mark the milestones of longer lives, and how to keep people engaged in religious life after their children grow up. Should there be new rituals around moving into encore careers, volunteering, or attaining wisdom?”

In the public narrative about old age, economists often talk of a “dependency ratio” and worry about the economic imbalance between retired populations and working populations. Paul Irving would like to see that shift to discussions of an abundancy ratio; seeing the increase in older populations as an extraordinary social asset—a human capital resource—that can be activated and relied upon. “Finding purpose is an opportunity, as is utilizing the dividend of human longevity,” he concludes. “The big question is partly about social change and also about the chance of finding new sources of profound human happiness.”

  • Stephanie

    Lovely and thought provoking
    Thank you.