NEW YORK / The New York Times / Business Day / May 1, 2011
Off the Shelf
The Aging of America, as Opportunity
By NANCY F. KOEHN
WE all know — and some of us may feel it in our own bones — that the population is aging. Still, a look at the raw numbers of America’s graying can be startling.
the average life expectancy in the United States was 49. It is now 77.9, and rising. This year, the oldest of the baby boomers, who make up a quarter of the population, are turning 65. Tens of millions of others in that generation will do the same across the next decade and a half.
In “The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife” (PublicAffairs, $24.99), Marc Freedman argues that we need a “new map of life” to deal with this powerful demographic change.
Mr. Freedman is founder and chief executive of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit research group focused on boomers. He points out that while medical science, improved nutrition and other advances have succeeded in extending our lives, our ability to redefine these longer lives has lagged woefully behind.
Much existing literature on the aging population has been negative, he says. “For more than a decade,” he observes, “we’ve heard one jeremiad after another about the coming cataclysm, as the world is awash in mass codgerdom, bankrupting future generations, overstressing the health care system, and generally feeding a generational war favoring the old and compromising the young.”
But this assumes that boomers will deal with their 60s and 70s in the same way as past generations, Mr. Freedman says. In reality, the period after midlife and before age-induced infirmity — roughly from 60 to 75 — is changing significantly, he argues.
author wants to broaden the way that people think about this part of life, which he calls the “encore stage.” He also recognizes that our choices during this stage will have a wider impact in a society that has not, on average, saved enough for traditional retirement and cannot count on enough government benefits or company-provided pensions to make up the difference.
The encore stage is not about “clinging to our lost youth,” he says. Rather, it means using one’s evolving identity and experience in ways that are characterized by “purpose, contribution and commitment, particularly to the well-being of future generations.”
With enthusiasm and verve, Mr. Freedman describes how the encore stage has worked for a range of people. There is Gary Maxworthy, who after the death of his wife and decades in the food distribution business joined Vista, part of the AmeriCorps national food service program.
Placed in a San Francisco food bank, Mr. Maxworthy started a program called Farm to Family, which distributes blemished produce not fit for supermarket or restaurant purchase to needy families in California. It was Mr. Maxworthy’s accumulated experience, Mr. Freedman writes, that allowed him to create such a program on a vast scale. The transition to the encore stage is often difficult, as Meredith McKenzie discovered after her husband died and she suffered a serious accident. After taking time to reassess her life and moving to a small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Ms. McKenzie became interested in river conservation.
But it took years, several setbacks and significant downsizing of possessions and living expenses before she could cobble together a portfolio of projects — including consulting on water law and environmental planning and teaching part time on the subject — that satisfied her passion for river protection and restoration and allowed her to make enough money to live.
She described her decision to change her life in her late 50s as akin to “walking the high trapeze without a net.”
These and other stories make for engaging and at times enlightening reading. So, too, do Mr. Freedman’s observations about life stages as social constructs that arise and are later revised as the broader social context changes.
For example, he explains that the concept of adolescence, as a transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, began only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That is when child labor laws began to prohibit children under 16 from working and public education opportunities kept young people in school, thus lengthening their years of dependence on parents and postponing their adult responsibilities.
In a similar way, Mr. Freedman says, demographic shifts are now creating the conditions for the new encore stage of life.
The book is on weaker ground when it takes up the issue of how to jump-start “the big shift” on a large scale. How, the author asks, “do we ensure that the best thing that ever happened to us as individuals, the prospect of extended and healthier lives, is a boon to the broader community, now and into the future?”
He sketches out 10 possibilities for answering this question, including a “gap year for grown-ups,” retraining and education, revamping of human resources policies to help workers move to a new stage of life, and the creation of special savings accounts for managing those transitions.
Each of the ideas makes theoretical sense, but where is the money, momentum and institutional power to move them off the whiteboard and into practice? Here, the book is largely silent.
Reading this book is like a good conversation at a dinner party. It doesn’t have a lot of structure, or precise definitions. But the animating ideas often sparkle in their relevance. The result is an imaginative work with the potential to affect our individual lives and our collective future.
© 2011 The New York Times Company