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The Future is Older--so what?
Jeremy Faludi, 2 Aug 04

We all know by now that the future holds more old people. But what will the effects on society be?

A recent Stanford Magazine article has some interesting thoughts by researchers at the Life-span Development Laboratory there.

...longer lives have created a new reality. “Our society is still structured on assumptions that are 100 years old,” she says. “We’re living lives guided and scripted by social institutions that evolved around life expectancies half as long.”... [for instance,] When the United States established Social Security in 1935, it settled on 65 as the age when benefits kicked in. expectancy at the time was 61.

...Does it make sense to retire at 65 if we’re going to live to be 95? “What’s happening is that we’re just tacking years on at the end of our lives,” she says. “Nobody said they had to come at the end.” ...Carstensen says, admittedly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that society might be better served if people could “retire” earlier in their lives when the extra time would be more meaningful. Perhaps work part-time during the years when careers compete with child-rearing, then return to the workforce at, say, age 40. “When the kids are teenagers, you go back to work and work until you’re 80.” ...Carstensen is quick to add that such hopeful imagining hinges on a currently unreliable assumption: that older people will be healthy. “The question we should be asking is, ‘How do we ensure that people come to old age mentally sharp and physically fit?’”

[having an older population will also mean a shift in cultural values and the psychology of societies.] ...older people are less self-centered than younger people. Instead of striving to compete, they enjoy sharing what they’ve learned. And while older people inevitably lose some of their cognitive and physical abilities, their emotional skills improve.“ ...“They are able to appreciate different perspectives, assess complex interpersonal implications, and decide which course of action is most promising.” ...Millions of older American workers, volunteers and mentors could be a powerful agent for cultural change, Carstensen says.

Something the article doesn't mention, but which I think will also be an inevitable consequence of an aging world: as life-extension technology rises, so will assisted-suicide technology. When it's common for people to fade slowly into death over a period of painful / depressing years (due to reduced mobility & slowly-deteriorating health, loss of friends, etc.), the concept of "how much life is enough?" will become mainstream. The beginnings of this trend are already here, with Oregon's establishment of the legality of physician-assisted suicide. "Going away" parties for people to celebrate before their deaths, while probably never destined for the mainstream, will probably become a recognized niche.

As the idea becomes more accepted, it'll also cause more debate about what makes life worth living in the first place, and will hopefully spur some rebuilding of community & family ties that are in decline today.

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I would also question whether people, having been given a taste of work-free life early on, would even want to work when they're older. But then I've not got kids: maybe work would seem like a break after raising a few!

I also have to mention the idea put forward by the brilliant occult philosopher Ramsey Dukes, in his collection of essays called 'What I Did In My Holidays: Essays on Black Magic, Satanism, Devil Worship and Other Niceties'. I wish it was online so I could link to it, but the idea was simple. Instead of lumping old people into retirement homes with people they may not be really interested in to wait for death, why not "specialise" retirement homes? Basically, homes would be themed around various passions or hobbies, and old people would spend their autumn years giving free reign to their personal creative desires, collaborating on collective projects. The homes would then, ideally, become centres for the interest in question, probably attracting younger people wanting to learn. Homes could even become self-supporting through charging for workshops, or admission to museums, theme parks or exhibitions created by its inhabitants.

Again, this would also hopefully reflect back on the whole of society. People may look at retired people doing this and think, "Why don't we all live like that?". A refreshing idea considering what we think currently when we look at how we treat the elderly.

Posted by: Gyrus on 3 Aug 04

' "Going away" parties for people to celebrate before their deaths, while probably never destined for the mainstream, will probably become a recognized niche. '

No reason this shouldn't be mainstream. In Native American societies similar practices were facilitated by the habit of changing names at a transitional period in life. For example, the father of Crazy Horse was an important man among the Sioux, who was named ... Crazy Horse. When his son came of age, he formally transferred the name (and, by implication, the social position) and took upon himself the name "Worm", signifying he was from thenceforth to be an old man of little public importance.

The increasing use of internet nicknames might be leading to a more formal recognition of multiple social roles in our society via the use of multiple names. It's a small step from there to a recognition of multiple phases in life, with accompanying transitional rituals.

Posted by: joe on 3 Aug 04

The future of being old is you wont make it to the point you are old. At some point the ability to stave off being old will push to the point where being stupid gets you first every time. Concidering the general stupidy index I put this age at around 150 for some and around 75 for many others. Personaly I am surprised I managed to live this long;/

Posted by: wintermane on 3 Aug 04



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