The Meaning of Aging and the Future of Social Security

Article excerpt

What vision of a secure old age should be embedded in this cornerstone of the American welfare state?

Later life in the West today is a season in search of its purposes. For the first time in human history, most people can expect to live into their seventies in reasonably good health; those over eighty-five are the fastestgrowing age group in the population. Yet the words of aes-ro every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven"carry little conviction when applied to the second half of life.

Between the sixteenth century and the third quarter of the twentieth century, Western ideas about aging underwent a fundamental transformation, spurred by the development of modem society Ancient and medieval understandings of aging as a mysterious part of the eternal order of things gradually gave way to the secular, scientific, and individualist tendencies of modernity Old age was removed from its place as a way station along life's spiritual journey and redefined as a problem to be solved by science and medicine. By the mid twentieth century, older people were moved to society's margins and defined primarily as patients or pensioners.

Because long lives have become the rule rather than the exception, and because collective mean ing systems have lost their power to infuse aging with widely shared significance, we have become deeply uncertain about what it means to grow old. Ancient myths and modem stereotypes alike fail to articulate the challenges or capture the uncertainty of generations moving into the still-lengthening later years. The modernization of aging has generated a host of unanswered questions: Does aging have an intrinsic purpose? Is there anything really important to be done after children are raised, jobs left, careers completed? Is old age the culmination of life? Does it contain potential for self-completion? What are the avenues of spiritual growth in later life? What are the roles, rights, and responsibilities of older people? What are the particular strengths and virtues of old age? Is there such a thing as a good old age?

In 1979, the English writer Ronald Blythe wrote in The View in Winter that "the ordinariness of living to be old" was too new to appreciate. "The old have ... been sentenced to life and turned into a matter for public concern@' he wrote. "They are the first generations of fulltimers and thus the first generations of old people for whom the state, experimentally, grudgingly, and uncertainly, is having to make special supportive conditions. " Blythe suggested that it would soon be necessary for people to learn to grow old as they had once learned to grow up.

These perceptive remarks already have the feet of a bygone era. At the tam of the twentyfirst century, the long-rising tide of modernity is turning; beneath the much heralded "age wave," uncharted postmodem cultural currents are breaking up conventional images, norms, and expectations about aging and old age. The large percentage of public economic and medical resources devoted to older people has spawned a fierce debate over intergenerational equity in shrinking welfare states. Meanwhile, writers, filmmakers, advocates, and elders are defying negative stereotypes and images of old age. Within the List decade, we have also seen renewed interest in the search for meaning in later life -variously called "conscious aging,' "spiritual eldering," or "spirituality and aging@ And in 1999, the United Nations' International Year of the Older Person program is making a concerted effort to emphasize that older people are active agents as well as dependent beneficaries, sources of wisdom and guidance as well -as recipients of healthcare and income transfers.

The meaning of later life is not only a matter of cultural values and personal experience; it is also linked to values and assumptions built into social policy. In our view, the current debate over the future of Social Security needs to be examined not only in the usual fiscal terms but also in moral and existential terms: What vision of a secure old age should be embedded in this cornerstone of the American welfare state? …