By Ellen Goodman
When I retired from my tenure as a columnist last year, my daughter relayed the news to my grandson, who promptly picked up the phone and, in his most serious 7-year-old voice, said: “Grandma, I hear you’re tired.”
Well, not exactly.
My daughter and I struggled to hide our amusement from a misunderstanding that was not entirely linguistic. After all, retirement was once a matter of ’tirement. It was the formerly new idea that we didn’t have to work until we dropped in place.
But writing, after all, is not heavy lifting. I wasn’t leaving one career to swoon into the hammock. I was rather thinking about renewal—tweaking and trying new things with my mind and fingers.
Now my un-tirement seems to be something of a trend. I am part of the first huge generation to pass the demarcation line of senior citizenship with the statistical promise of good time ahead.
As 2011 opens, the first of the baby boomers will join us, turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day for the next 19 years. We are the leading edge of what is optimistically called the Longevity Revolution.
In little over a century, Americans have gone from a life expectancy of 47 to one of 78. By 2025 there will be 66 million Americans over 65. The decisions that we make individually and collectively about how to spend this gift of time will reshape the country.
Already there are two diverging narratives about older age that are competing to replace the “golden years” vision of retirement as perpetual R&R.
The first appears in upbeat book titles and messages about the “third age,” the “next step” the “age of active wisdom.” It’s encoded as well in messages from retirement planners that are less about financial freedom from work than about financial freedom to work—at something meaningful. As one Wells Fargo ad says, “There’s one thing Dave has always wanted to do after he’s retired: Keep working.”
The idea of a post-retirement career—once an oxymoron—is now embodied in the phrase “encore career” that’s been popularized by Marc Freedman of Civic Ventures (whose board I just joined). The word “encore” both applauds and promotes people seeking purposeful work after they bow out of one stage of life.
These have become more common profiles. We can read about a “retired” tool-and-die shop owner leading a fight against coal companies or a corporate lawyer creating a nonprofit to help Afghan farmers plant 8 million trees. And last month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof—who annually recruits a young companion for a grueling reporting trip to the truly hot spots of the world—consciously added a slot for someone over 60.
This narrative of older age redefines senior citizenship as less a list of entitlements than a worksheet of contributions. And it fits a popular image of our generation.
The ’60s generation—the 1960s now in its 60s—has been the culture’s change agents. We pushed for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. We also, for better and for worse, have a long history of leading examined lives. So, we may be primed to make a difference in our older age.
But there is the second competing narrative to my story of un-tirement. The Longevity Revolution also comes with a warning label. It’s in less upbeat book titles and articles about “The Shock of Gray.” It’s in endless reports about the gray tsunami overwhelming Social Security and Medicare. Elders are the problem not the problem solvers. They are even, in former Sen. Alan Simpson’s charming phrase, the “greedy geezers.”
In this alternate story, the attitude of baby boomers themselves as they hit 65 is not renewal. It can be summed up by the word used to describe this cohort in a recent Pew study: “glum.” In this economic plot, the Wells Fargo ad about the joy of working after work meets a countermessage from Charles Schwab: “My wild retirement dream? Actually retiring.”
A cautionary tale shows elders hanging on, against the economic wind. After all, the much touted fix for Social Security suggests raising the age of full benefits to 69. But unemployment and age discrimination have already made a tough climate for those who need to work.
Recently, Slate magazine published its catalog of the nation’s silver lions, “80 Over 80,” from financial wiz Warren Buffett to octo-hottie Clint Eastwood. But the culture is also harboring the image—self-image?—of elders clogging the pipeline to tenure or the corner office.
These diverging narratives are not the only choices facing individuals as we age. But these two may frame the cultural expectations. In one version older Americans are a crucial, valued population re-upping to use our experience and wisdom to again change society. In another, we are burdens whose knowledge and usefulness are past the sell-by date.
Which portrait ultimately hangs over us is not just a personal matter. If I may transfer a phrase from one social movement to another, the personal is political. If our generation were the cultural change agents, we were never as radical as advertised. We were on both sides of the culture wars.
Add to that old divide, the cultural assumption that people grow more conservative as they age. Indeed the one age group that didn’t vote for the “hope and change” message of 2008 was those over 65. The elders who already had universal health care—Medicare—were the least eager to assure it for others. And in the recent election they formed a disproportionate number of tea party voters.
How will we shape the Longevity Revolution? I have the sense that if we don’t use this gift of time to open up new possibilities, we may go into a long anxious crouch. If we are not the change agents of aging, we’ll be the change resisters. Indeed, if we don’t feel needed and engaged as problem solvers, we may well be part of a growing me-first senior politics.
This is a moment to redefine aging, how we see ourselves and our country. No, it’s not a time to be tired.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman1(at)me.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group
Photo illustration from an image by Flickr user Lucy Boynton (CC-BY)