This New Year’s Day two very different stories about the baby boomers’ uneasy relationship with aging caught my eye. One was a front-page piece of fluff from the NYTimes whose title says it all: “Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65.” Apparently the hallmark of this transition is “a pervading sense that life has been what might technically be called a ‘bummer.’” A remarkably self-absorbed way to describe the logical corollary of the “U-shaped happiness curve”: that mid-life is a time of reckoning that necessarily sets the stage for contentment in late life.
The second, a sharp essay by Ellen Goodman in Truthout, calls out the “two diverging narratives about older age that are competing to replace the ‘golden years’ vision of retirement as perpetual R&R.” One is upbeat: personal fulfillment through meaningful “encore careers.” The other is a bleak landscape of obsolete oldsters who can’t find work or just don’t wanna. The culture feeds this dualism. Older people are damned if they don’t yield their to younger workers on the assembly line, and damned as “greedy geezers” if they do.
Finding a middle ground is essential, for economic, cultural, and personal reasons. At 65 most of us will be neither superhuman nor superannuated, but something in between. Most of us likewise aspire to a work life that bridges the gap between career-building and collapse: a meaningful, part- or flex-time way to continue to contribute, whether at home, at church, in the office, or in Mali. Boomers can’t afford to stop working, and given longer healthy lives, the needs of the next generation, and the benefits of ongoing engagement, we shouldn’t aspire to it. We need to do better than our predecessors who already have universal healthcare (Medicare) and who were the most likely to vote against it in the November elections — greedy indeed. As Goodman writes, “The decisions that we make individually and collectively about how to spend this gift of time will reshape the country.”