The main idea of this book is that contemporary development in societal arrangements in developed countries and technological development provided for increase longevity, which made existing lifecycle modes with predefined periods of childhood, maturity, and retirement outdated and unsustainable on the long run. Author proposed to substitute this model with the new one with much less segregated periods of activities when learning, working, and leisure/travel distributed much more evenly throughout lifespan and conducted continuously, so the person would relearn and probably change profession a few times, travel around the world not in retirement, but in young and middle age, and even avoid retirement all together by continuing doing productive activities that he/she enjoys nearly to the end.
It starts with presenting the new problem – significantly extended life span of western population. For example number of 100+ years old people quadrupled in 4 years. It extends complex social and financial problems of how to provide for people who are inactive, waiting for the end of life and assure sufficient levels of Social security and Medicare financing for these people. Author suggest that there is need to rethink meaning of old age and refers to her own experience when in her twenties she was immobilized for months after incident, staying in one room with 3 old women and learning about problems of people who cannot take care about themselves. This started her career in psychology, which eventually became centered on problems of aging. Author differentiates two different processes of aging: one for educated and affluent people who mainly remain active both physically and intellectually and another one for poor uneducated people without access to anything beyond various welfare handouts.
2 – What Is Aging?
Here author is discussing and trying to debunk 5 myths about aging:
- The “Misery Myth” that older people are sad and lonely
- The “DNA Is Destiny Myth” that your whole fate is foretold in your genes
- The “Work Hard, Retire Harder Myth” that we should rush to exit the workforce
- The “Scarcity Myth” that older people are a drain on the world’s resources
- The “We Age Alone Myth” that how we fare in old age is entirely an individual matter, and not a function of society
The debunking is going this way:
- People in old age are not miserable, they just change mode of living: value more simple everyday things, small circle of friends, stronger marriages, more specific and shorter term goals, and so on. All this makes people quite happy in old age.
- For this author provides multiple evidences that DNA, while important, is not definitive. One of this is:“A Harvard University study that’s been running since the 1930s, tracking the lifelong health of both Harvard graduates and people born in inner-city Boston, shows that longevity hinges largely on seven lifestyle choices, which, if made by age fifty, serve as excellent predictors of well-being after age seventy. They are not smoking, not abusing alcohol, getting regular exercise, maintaining one’s weight, and having a stable marriage, an education, and good coping mechanisms for dealing with life’s troubles.
- Here author supports idea that productive activity is very beneficial during aging process, but also that it is necessary because lack of financial security. So author promotes all kinds of part time and voluntary work.
- Here author states that it is not a problem and then for some reason discusses overpopulation, which is not happening in developed country and is in process of ceasing in undeveloped ones. Author rejects idea of intergenerational war for resources, as well as idea of older people keeping good jobs and preventing advancement for younger people.
- The final myth rejection based on numerical strength of baby boomers and increased easy of communication and transportation. However author stresses need for resource and its direct link to longevity: “The difference in life expectancy between the most and least affluent Americans nearly doubled in the last twenty years, from 2.8 years in the early 1980s to 4.5 years at the turn of the century. To pit extreme demographic variances against each other, affluent white women now live, on average, fourteen years longer than poor black men in America.”
3 – Reenvisioning Long Lives
Here author discusses need to review the notion of live as 3 Acts play: Growing and Learning with minimal if any participation in productive activities, Act II – full time productive activities, and Act III – leisure and decay with no productive activities.
Author suggests changing it into 5 Acts play:
- Beginning with government provided retirement saving account with the main objective being to prepare individual to lifelong learning and easy change of profession.
- The increased productive activities starting sometime in 30s, but not too heavy so they would leave plenty of space for art, travel, leisure and so on. Author think it would be a good idea to underwrite this pace by keeping parents working at least part time.
- Middle age when people actually take full responsibilities for their society and production of goods and services it needs. However author insists that it should also be moderate, leaving place for family and everything else.
- The turning point at social security age from mainly productive activities to some kind of minimized version of such activities with maybe “encore career” and/or voluntary activities.
- Resolution sometime in 80s, meaning slowly fading away while joining with young people in acts 1 and 2 to transfer knowledge and wisdom and do something good.
4 – The Social Side of Aging
This is about need for aging to continue maintaining social connection with other people, as absolutely necessary because humans developed to live and act in groups with no possibility of surviving alone. Author refers to multiple studies that demonstrate deleterious effects of social isolation. Author also discusses age related changes in social interaction modes from expansion of connections in young age with quantity preferred to quality to contraction of connections with age, with intense concentration on quality of these connections. Author also looks here at institutionalized connections like marriage and grand parenting.
S – Collective Supports: Social Security and Medicare
This chapter is more about social policies providing safety net for old and unproductive people with no savings. Author discusses typical calculation of these systems running out of money if nothing change and current trends continue. Author looks at different group of SSA recipients: wealthy for whom social security provides 30% of income, middle class for whom it is 50-60%, and poor for whom it is 80% and more. After that author weights in social security funding and reform discussion, making it clear that she believes it is not insurance program, but rather social support program. She also rejects ideas of its privatization. However, she does not go to anywhere beyond Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission with its suggestion to increase retirement age and similar “lets steal more from middle class” ideas. She demonstrates similar approach to Medicare.
6 – Investing in Our Future: The Case for Science and Technology
This starts with discussion about causes of increased longevity such as improvement in hygiene that increased averages without real impact on longevity of people who did not succumb to early age diseases. Then author moves to interesting part of epigenetics and new science of human life cycle that stresses need to start working on longevity of organism right after inception. This follows by discussion about continuing body conditions monitoring throughout lifetime that would allow early corrective interventions to prevent development of unhealthy conditions. At the end of chapter author complains that 90% of science developments directed to serve 5% of richest people in the world, meaning citizens of countries that conduct such research.
7 – What Might Go Wrong?
Here author expresses concern that current trend of increase in longevity should not be taken for granted and lists some scenarios how it could go wrong:
- We fail to imagine new models of live
- We spend like there is no tomorrow
- We fail to address current health threats
- We let the poor stay poor
- We forget to plan for the children
8 – Ensuring a Long Bright Future
The final chapter summarizes author’s opinion about successful aging, which is based on her experience in life and results of scientific research such as need to be active and effective in four key areas: Relationship: Social and Family activity; Finance: Work longer, save more; Intellectual Activity: Learn throughout your life; Health maintenance: Take care of your body;
MY TAKE ON IT:
Like author I also think that existing mode of aging and retirement is not sustainable, but not only in relation to life span, but also for overall society organization because the automation is already pushing people out of work place, while health maintenance developments are making traditional pattern of intergenerational resource transfer ineffective. I think that author is too much of a socialist, even if she does not really understands it, to offer any viable solutions in economic and financial areas, but her psychological and gerontological experience makes her advice for health, both physical and mental, in old age quite valuable. I personally practice what she preaches and can confirm that it works as advertised, at least so far.