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Thinking About Longevity
Imagine a house that has been your home for a number of years, to which you unexpectedly have the resources to add a room. What will that room be? Will it serve a need that you were not aware of when you first moved in? You might, for instance, have decided that you now need a study or an exercise room. Or will it allow you to elaborate on something that has always been part of your life? Perhaps you have always cared about books and have bookshelves spread throughout your home, but now you want to gather those books together in a room you will call the library. You may not have had a room where a guest could stay but now want to offer hospitality to a married son or daughter with a new generation of children (will one room be enough?). You may want to take an avocation, like wood carving or work you have done for a cause you cared about, and develop it, so the new room will be a studio or an office. You may have become passionate about gourmet cooking and want a different kind of kitchen. Or you may simply want to use this opportunity to extend your traditional “living room” in some new and more inclusive way, with more space or wider windows or a hearth.
The first thing you will discover when you “add” a room to a house is that add is generally the wrong word, because the way you use all the rest of the house, the way you live and organize your time and even your relationships, will be affected by the change. Existing rooms will be used differently, sounds will echo in new ways, community and privacy will have new meanings. Gaps will open where familiar items have been shifted to the new space and new acquisitions will fill them. The new room is not simply tacked on to the east or west side of the house, it represents a new configuration of the entire building and the lives it shelters.
This is what longevity is like. In the United States, we have not “added” years to life (thirty in the twentieth century, twenty since World War II), tacked on at the end. We have changed the shape and meaning of a lifetime in ways we do not yet fully understand. Similarly, with increasing numbers of older citizens, we are changing as a population, becoming a rather different society, just as the Louisiana and Alaska purchases brought more than geographical space to the nation. Arguably, something even more profound has happened: we are evolving into a rather different species, inhabiting a new niche and challenged to adapt in new ways. Similar processes are occurring in other industrialized countries, but culture, legislation, and economy make them play out differently, so the examples in this book, drawn from the United States, need to be interpreted in the light of American conditions, particularly the continuing openness to immigration, the lack of mandatory retirement laws, and attitudes toward employment.
Here is the situation in which we find ourselves. Most Americans are aware that the retirement of the Baby Boom generation is creating a variety of new demands, so that “retirement” has changed its meaning. In fact, our assumptions about retirement already mask deep changes. Government retirement pensions were invented in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, at a time when sixty-five-year-olds were few and far between (life expectancy at birth was about forty-five), were mostly very limited in their ability to work, and would not be around for long. In other words, retirement was invented for people whose conditions were in some ways worse than those of eighty-five-year-olds in the United States today. Today’s sixty-five-year-olds are starting new careers or continuing old ones, traveling around the world, and eloping with new loves.
What is less widely understood is that this is happening at a time when both individual life cycles and populations have taken on radically new structures. We have not added decades to life expectancy by simply extending old age; instead, we have opened up a new space partway through the life course, a second and different kind of adulthood that precedes old age, and as a result every stage of life is undergoing change.
Different societies look at age-groups differently. In some places status is governed by small differences of age, in others all children or all old people may be grouped together. However, virtually every society does make distinctions between children and adults and does recognize changes in the participation of older adults, creating at least three major stages of life, which may be subdivided further, stages that corfirespond for many individuals to generations: childhood (not yet adults), parenthood (adults), and grandparenthood (elders). With the survival of many grandparents to become great-grandparents and the improved health conditions of older adults, we have in effect created the first four-generation society in history.
Here I am not using the term generation to refer to twenty-year cohorts with catchy nicknames, although cohorts do indeed share characteristics determined by the changing contexts in which they have grown up and lived. I am referring to the presence of three coexisting generations defined by their roles and activities, with individuals moving from one to the next as “the younger generation” becomes “the older generation” around the campfire or the table; children become parents, and parents become grandparents, often by about the age of forty, which was regarded as a fairly ripe old age through most of human history. Today’s grandparents, including a considerable proportion of Baby Boomers, are different from grandparents in the past and much healthier and more numerous.
This is new. Every society has some members who are not yet full participants—infants, children, and those approaching adulthood, whom we now call adolescents. And every society has adults who are simultaneously full participants in maintaining the society and in its perpetuation as they produce and rear children. And every society has at least a few older members who are past their reproductive and child-rearing years, often in declining health. This older generation typically withdraws from some kinds of participation, but the pattern always includes some continuing contribution, often of a sort that is not open to younger adults.
We know from cross-cultural studies that postreproductive adults—elders—have played a key role in human societies through time. Many of these elders have been grandparents and a few have been great-grandparents (a very scarce resource through most of history), but in terms of the ancient three-generation structure, they have played similar roles. This has been the human pattern: three generations or stages of life, diverse and changing through time, defined in relation to the others and to their forms of participation and only secondarily as age-groups.
Now, however, older adults, many of whom are grandparents but who have an unprecedented level of health and energy, time and resources, fit into society in new ways, often much like younger adults. And for the first time in history there are large numbers of great- grandparents, who look and act somewhat, but not precisely, the way grandparents used to. Biomedicine has once again created a profound change in the human condition. We have inserted a new developmental stage into the life cycle, a second stage of adulthood, not an extension tacked on to old age.
A decade ago some of us began calling this stage a second adulthood, but that phrase too easily evokes the second rate or secondhand—or even a second childhood of incompetence. I think we will need to think in terms of a first adult stage we can call Adulthood I, a very busy and productive time, which includes both our primary child-rearing years and the building of careers, and a new stage we can call Adulthood II. Adulthood II may begin as early as age forty (for example, for athletes, whose first careers may last only twenty years) and extend past eighty (for example, for politicians, if they reach the Senate, and many self-employed people), for many years of participation and contribution. Both as individuals and as a society we are being taken by surprise by this change, yet so far most of the discussion focuses on its financial implications, not on its opportunities. How will the new room be used? How will the rest of life be different?
Those who are grandparents today are unlike the grandparents they remember. They adore their grandchildren, but they just aren’t sitting still. They won’t behave like stereotypical grandparents, with long memories and short walks, until they are great-grandparents. They are often colleagues to their own children, working side by side as adults. Historically, wisdom has been associated with elders. Today’s grandparents combine the same length of experience with continuing mobility, so I think of Adulthood II as the stage of active wisdom, which precedes old age.
We are going through a profound change in the status of the human species. The easiest way to assess that change is to consider the importance of an extended childhood in the process of becoming human, Homo sapiens. From very simple organisms up through mammals, learning very slowly became a key to survival; most organisms are hatched or born equipped with the specialized behaviors they need to survive in their environments, or can acquire them in a matter of days or weeks, without an extended period of dependency. Human development, by comparison, is exceptionally labor intensive, requiring the attention of multiple adults over long periods of time. Even in comparison to other mammals, human infants and children are helpless in a way that is conspicuous and seems terribly inefficient. But it is this helplessness that is the key not only to the flexibility that has allowed humans to adapt to every environment on the planet but also to the long adventure of exploration and invention that we call culture. Even more important, it is what prepares human beings to give and receive love and is the seedbed of conscience.
For humans, even the most rudimentary skills of survival must be transmitted from generation to generation early in the life course. Transmitting even a fraction of the larger culture requires a period of enculturation that now lasts twenty or more years and often continues to the end of life. It seems that the experiences of helplessness, depen?- dence, and vulnerability are essential to becoming human. Human infants have no option of walking or flying away after a few weeks or months but willy-nilly are forced to stay with caregivers, normally creating the context for learning, along with an array of information and skills, how to love and how to trust.
When we look at aging from a Darwinian perspective, it is clear that the same apparent anomaly exists at the end of life. If the hen is the egg’s way of making another egg, the hen that is no longer laying is useless except for the stewpot. In many species, the spider lays her eggs and dies—she has made her contribution to the future (and sometimes she kills her mate, his contribution also completed). Yet even as natural selection has reinforced a period of dependent learning for the survival of offspring in some species, natural selection apparently reinforces the possibility for elders in some species to live on while their young mature, sometimes to produce another brood, and sometimes beyond that capacity as well.
Studies of species that live in groups, where members of the pack or herd tend to be related—for instance, a herd of deer—have shown that the survival of a few postreproductive animals, in this case a few old does, increases the chance of survival of young born in the herd, because the old does remember where to find food or water in a year of drought or very deep snow, contributing to the inclusive fitness of the group. Human society is conspicuous for the role played by adults other than parents in the rearing of the young—in fact, teaching is more distinctively human than learning, as is the institutionalization of teaching roles. Anthropologists have looked at human groups and demonstrated that the presence of grandparents—particularly maternal grandmothers—reduces infant and child mortality, which is to say, increases the likelihood that children will grow up to pass on their genes, presumably the same genes that kept their grandparents healthy and supportive. And here, too, love and trust must be part of the equation, particularly the trust between a new mother and her own mother, which allows her to accept help and advice more easily than from a mother-in-law.
Most human groups value their elders, and a great many societies have evolved specialized and valued roles for the old, some of them depending on obvious assets, like length of experience, and others involving more subtle values. Among the San Bushmen of southern Africa, for instance, the hunt for game with poison-tipped arrows depends on moving rapidly across the veld, first to approach the quarry and then to follow for several days as the poison does its work. When men become too old to participate in the hunt, they become the makers of arrows—and tradition ascribes to the arrow maker the primary credit for the kill, so that in the distribution of meat to all the members of the community, the arrow maker is treated as the source. Looked at pragmatically, the making of the arrow is indeed a contribution, one that could be made by a younger man but has been reserved for the old, but less of a concrete contribution than the honor it is given, which makes it central to the solidarity of the band. Similarly, only when women are too old for childbearing are they permitted to become shamanic healers, a translation of the love and care they have given their children to the health of the wider community. In both cases, an appropriately limited effort is recognized as having a profound value.