Most of us don’t look forward to getting older. After all, youth is associated with strength and old age with weakness. But the baby boomer generation is instigating an attitude rethink.
Our obsession with youth
Whichever way you look at it, age is perceived negatively in Western culture. And no wonder, the German medical dictionary ‘Pschyrembel’ defines ageing as a ‘degenerative biological process that over time leads to signs of mental and physical wear’. And there’s a widespread public view that sees old people as an increasing financial headache – they no longer contribute to economic output and are regarded as a burden to the health system and the state purse.
Ageing isn’t the problem. The problem is our obsession with youth.Dr Bill Thomas
But over recent years, other, more positive, views have begun to surface. “Ageing isn’t the problem. The problem is our obsession with youth,” says US gerontologist Dr Bill Thomas, founder of the Eden Alternative, an international not-for-profit organisation that is dedicated to creating a good quality of life for elders.
The doctor is committed to a new culture of ageing by, among other things, enforcing new care models for the elderly, where even the oldest and frailest are fully appreciated. “A society fixated on youth cuts itself off from the goodness, richness, wonder and value of the older brain, which contains an abundance of lived experience,” he says.
“We believe that youth only has strengths. That is not the case,” adds gerontologist Ursula M Staudinger, founding director of the Robert N Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University, New York. “In young adulthood, we may be biologically at the peak of our strengths, but we’re also very egocentric. We want to find our place in society. This is a competitive phase, which is also associated with aggression. In middle and old age, this egocentricity diminishes. People become calmer and more generous – qualities that are as useful in business as they are in society as a whole.”
Tapping into superpowers
‘Superpowers’ are what Dr Thomas calls the special skills that many people develop with advancing age. He includes in this the gift of being able to quickly capture the essence of a complex situation, rather than having to slowly struggle through details. Added to that are emotional maturity and the growing ability to be happy: “Studies show that the unhappiest life period is your 40s. The happiest people are mostly in their 70s.” Properly used, these skills can turn ageing into a powerful cultural tool, according to Dr Thomas. The old generation can hold together families, communities, tribes and nations.
The fourth phase
Dr Thomas advocates the recognition of old age next to childhood, adolescence and adulthood as an additional chapter in our natural life cycle known as elderhood. He describes the fact that a large number of people don’t want to undergo this natural development stage as a ‘developmental disability’, comparable to a child not wanting to grow up. “We live in a fantasy where we have to stay at the adult stage for the rest of our lives. In fact, humans have a portion of their life cycle reserved for being ‘elders of their people’”. And elders are known to be experienced and wise.
When do we become old?
There are many answers to this question, depending who is speaking, according to research carried out in 2009 by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC.
Young Americans say 60. Those who are already 65 or older, however, consider themselves mature but not old – for them, old age begins at 74. On average, women believe 70 is old, while men think 66 is already an old age. Scientists have estimated that the maximum possible age a human could live to is 125 years – an age that nevertheless only a few people around the world come close to achieving. With this in mind, a 65-year-old, who already counts as ‘old’ according to the Word Health Organization’s definition, has only just started the second half of life.