Here at AgingOptions, as you know if you’re a regular reader of our blog, we seek out articles every week in order to spotlight various issues related to aging and retirement. But from time to time we encounter an article that seems truly groundbreaking and causes us to reflect on the idea of aging in brand new ways – which is how we reacted as we read this article just published on the website of MIT’s Technology Review. It’s a long essay, but is asks a provocative question: what if the whole idea of “old age” as we understand it is something we as a society made up?
The Idea of “Old Age” is Hurting Everyone, Article Claims
The article begins with a straightforward premise: what we call “old age” is actually a concept we constructed, and the very idea of old age is hurting everyone, young and old alike. It was penned by the director of MIT’s groundbreaking AgeLab, Joseph Coughlin. “Of all the wrenching changes humanity knows it will face in the next few decades – climate change, the rise of [artificial intelligence], the gene-editing revolution – none is nearly as predictable in its effects as global aging,” Coughlin writes. Because life expectancy in industrialized increased by more than three decades during the last century, there are now – for the first time in human history – more people over 65 than under 5. Coughlin says “a combination of increasing longevity, diminished fertility, and an aging Baby Boom cohort” have caused demographers to predict this dramatic aging trend for decades. “And yet,” he states, “we’re utterly unprepared for the consequences” – economically, socially, institutionally, and technologically.
Coughlin gives compelling evidence to demonstrate this lack of preparation for something we’ve known for years was coming. Employers in America and elsewhere are “experiencing what has been called a retirement brain drain” as boomers retire. But ironically, even with unemployment at historic peacetime lows, unemployed older workers are having difficulty finding good jobs, while other older workers (as many as half, Coughlin says) “are pushed out of their jobs before they planned to retire.” As the article points out, “It’s strange…that employers are facing a retirement crisis at the same time that many older workers have to fight outright ageism to prove their value—sort of like a forest fire coexisting with a torrential downpour. For that matter, it’s strange that we, as a society, put obstacles in the way of older job seekers given that hiring them could help prevent programs like Social Security and Medicare from running out of money.” We think he makes an excellent point.
Our Society Refuses to Deal with the Idea of “Old Age”
Coughlin’s article in the Technology Review lists more examples of our society’s refusal to deal with the realities of aging. “Half of Americans are financially unprepared for retirement—25 percent say they plan to never stop working—and state pension systems are hardly better off,” he writes. “Public transportation systems, to the limited extent they even exist outside of major cities, are unequal to the task of ferrying a large, older, non-driving population to where it needs to go.” On top of that, our nation faces “a shortage of professional elder-care providers that only stands to worsen as demand increases,” at a time when “informal” elder care performed by family and friends costs society an estimated $522 billion per year as women are forced to reduce their work hours or quit entirely to care for aging parents.
One of the areas to which Coughlin pays particular attention is what he calls “the profound mismatch between products built for older people and the products they actually want.” This disconnect shows how far off the mark we are about aging: product designers seem to think they understand the demands of the older market, but time after time “they underestimate how older consumers would flee any product giving off a whiff of ‘oldness.’’’ From hearing aids to age-friendly cars to blended foods to oversize cell phones, the market is littered with products seniors refuse to buy, because they don’t want to buy things associated with “old people.” (Pew Research says that only a third of people 75 or older consider themselves “old.”) Given that fact, Coughlin wonders, “Why do products built for older people so often seem so uninspiring—big, beige, and boring?” It’s not because older people don’t have money – American seniors control 83 percent of household wealth. And it’s not because older people aren’t tech savvy enough to buy well-designed products. It’s the way we think of old age.
The Reason for the Disconnect: Our Idea of “Old Age” is a Made-Up Notion
“The root cause of all this daylight—between products and consumer expectations, between employer and older worker, between what 75-year-olds think of as ‘old’ and their self-conception—is disarmingly simple. ‘Old age,’ as we know it, is made up,” Coughlin asserts. Sure, he acknowledges, growing old brings with it “a full Whitman’s Sampler of unpleasant biological contingencies.” But over the past century and a half, our society has come to view old age as a time of limited utility and required rest, and for cutting back on most activities in order to preserve what was thought to be limited supply of life energy. “By the 1910s, it was conventional wisdom that oldness constituted a problem worthy of action on a mass scale,” says Coughlin. “By the start of World War I, the first half of our modern narrative of old age was written: older people constituted a population in dire need of assistance.” But after World War II the myth of the so-called “golden years” arose, ushered in by Sun City developer Del Webb and others like him. Retirement soon became synonymous with leisure, at least for those who could afford it. Thus “the full 20th-century conception of oldness took form” – seniors were either needy, or they were greedy. “To be old meant to be always a taker, never a giver; always an economic consumer, never a producer.” Clearly, that’s a gross misconception of the creativity, vitality and ability of senior men and women.
Turn the Idea of “Old Age” Into a Rich and Rewarding Time of Life
We lack the space to cover more of Coughlin’s article but we do intend to check in frequently to the MIT AgeLab to see what else Coughlin and his team come up with. But we love the fact that he strongly advocates “redefining ‘old age’ from a black hole of passivity to a period marked by activity, agency, and even renewal.” One way we believe we can advance this concept is by helping people take concrete, comprehensive action today to plan for a secure and active future in retirement tomorrow. Our strategy is called LifePlanning. With an individualized LifePlan in place you’ll discover how all the vital aspects of successful aging can be crafted to work together interdependently, including how you’ll spend your money, how you’ll cover medical needs, where you’ll live, how you’ll protect yourself and your assets legally, and how supportive your family will be as you age.
So, don’t settle for a life spent simply growing old. Learn to age with purpose, guided on your path by a LifePlan from AgingOptions. For more information about this retirement planning breakthrough, we invite you to join Rajiv Nagaich at a free LifePlanning Seminar – an information-packed session where you’ll learn answers to questions you might never have known you needed to ask. For a complete calendar of upcoming seminars, visit our Live Events page and register for the date and time of your choice. You’ll discover for yourself the “old age” can be the most satisfying stage of life. Age on!
(originally reported at www.technologyreview.com)