On Life's New Stage-And Its Challenge to the Field of Aging

Article excerpt

In my years as an administrator at ASA, I always had to be thinking about what the board of directors and the association's membership would want. Because one of ASA's greatest strengths is the diversity of views represented on the board, the committees and other leadership bodies, as well as within the membership, developing policies and programs for the association was always an incredible balancing act.

By virtue of its role as ah association that tries to bring together all the different strands that make up the field of aging into a cross-disciplinary perspective within settings that range from senior centers to major corporations, ASA has been attuned to emerging trends in healthcare, mental health, long-term care, lifelong learning, commerce, spirituality and many other domains. To cite a few examples, ASA has identified and built successful programs around disparate trends, such as:

* Wellness as the emerging approach to health in one's later years;

* Cognitive fitness as an antidote to decline in brain health;

* Retaining top talent in an aging corporate workforce, as a growing need;

* The conscious aging movement with components focused on spirituality, creativity, the arts and the humanities;

* Increasing diversity of the rapidly growing older population in race, ethnicity, ability level, sexual identity and other areas;

* Increasing business interest in marketing to baby boomers;

* Chic engagement strategies for older adults;

* Policy disputes over public entitlement programs, such as Social security, Medicare and Medicaid, which continue to stir intense and sometimes bitter debate.

A FRESH LOOK

These and other issues, so vital to life in the United States, brought a special satisfaction to working at ASA. My recent work at Civic Ventures has presented me an opportunity to take a fresh look at many of these same issues and to put a new frame around them, one I feel opens new vistas for exploration.

It requires a bold leap to realize how these and related trends intersect in ways that fundamentally redefine human development in the later years and to hypothesize that we are really talking about something never seen before. I've come to see that the changes occurring with the aging of the population are not simply about redefining "retirement." A better way of looking at what's happening is to see the biological, social, economic and political trends at play as the elements of a new stage of life and work-one that falls between midlife and true old age-and for which we don't yet have a good name.

The idea of socially constructing a new stage of life is nothing new. Adolescence was defined only about a century ago when this increasingly complex society needed a new way to understand what for some identified the later years of childhood and for others marked the early phase of work and family. Furthermore, the modem concept of retirement did not exist until Otto Bismarck invented it in the late iSoos and real estate developer Del Webb reinvented it in the 1950s.

What does this new stage of life look like? For many older adults in the most developed countries, physical and cogni-. live decline has been significantly deferred, and they can look forward to years of good health in late life-a condition largely unknown to earlier generations. At the same time, though, economic well-being in these bonus years is in jeopardy. Traditional sources of support in later life-particularly the pension system, but also personal savings and, possibly, Social security-are going to be insufficient to support the greater years of life that have been bestowed on us by the fruits of public health, social organization and medical science. Very likely, many people will work longer, some because they wish to-and others because they have to.

SEEKING PURPOSE

Despite the prospects of struggle for some, it seems that these post-midlife years, perhaps more than earlier stages in life, lend themselves to a search for greater purpose. …