The RedeemerHarry Hole investigates a mistaken assassination
Several years ago, I was coming to the end of my sixties and facing my seventies, the second decade of what I thought of asthe Third Act of my life— Act III, which, as I see it, begins at age sixty. I was worried. Being in my sixties was one thing. Given good health, we can fudge our sixties. But seventy—now, that’s serious. In our grandparents’ time, people in their seventies were considered part of the “old old” . . . on their way out.
However, a revolution has occurred within the last century—a longevity revolution. Studies show that, on average, thirty- four years have been added to human life expectancy, moving it from an average of forty- six years to eighty! This addition represents an entire second adult lifetime, and whether we choose to confront it or not, it changes everything, including what it means to be human.
Adding a Room
The social anthropologist (and a friend of mine) Mary Catherine Bateson has a metaphor for living with this longer life span in view. She writes in her recent book Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, “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.” Bateson uses the identifiable metaphor of what happens when a new room is added to your home. It isn’t just the new room that is different; every other part of the house and how it isused is altered a bit by the addition of this room.
In the house that is our life, things such as planning, marriage, love, finances, parenting, travel, education, physical fitness, work, retirement—our very identities, even!—all take on new meaning now that we can expect to be vital into our eighties and nineties. . . or longer.
But our culture has not come to grips with the ways the longevity revolution has altered our lives. Institutionally, so much of how we do things is the same as it was early in the twentieth century, with our lives segregated into age- specific silos: During the first third we learn, during the second third we produce, and the last third we presumably spend on leisure. Consider, instead, how it would look if we tore down the silos and integrated the activities. For example, let’s begin to think of learning and working as a lifelong challenge instead of something that ends when you retire.
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