There’s something exciting and energizing about watching a recent concert performance of Bruce Springsteen, 65, blazing through a rendition of Tumbling Dice with Mick Jagger, 70, and the Rolling Stones at the Rock in Rio festival in Lisbon, Portugal.
The lyrics resonate with new meaning when you consider their ages: “Always in a hurry, I never stop to worry. Don’t you see the time flashin’ by.”
There’s passion in their playing. And age is, well, irrelevant.
In The Upside of Aging, Paul Irving, President of the Milken Institute — a nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving public health and aging across America — edits a collection of essays by a team of big-picture thinkers who expound on why we must change our approach to aging from one of dependence and disability to one of productivity and potential.
The common spine of their discussions: creative solutions to a range of issues, from age-friendly housing alternatives and transportation systems to lifelong learning and socially focused encore career opportunities.
“We must re-think the value of longevity, understanding that it’s not just about the time we’re given, but the quality and the purpose of that time,” writes Irving. “Older people are embracing more entrepreneurial roles, serving as catalysts in innovation, job creation, and economic growth.”
The truth is we’re living longer, healthier lives and that presents possibilities. Irving and his team of writers each bring their own unique lens to the question of how we can make a difference in this life stage to benefit not only the individual, but also society as a whole.
It’s a can-do, bright-side approach that’s relatively hard to find these days among all the gloom-and-doom of people not saving enough for their retirement and the palpable fear of outliving one’s savings.
The 16 voices, from university deans to nonprofit heads, assembled in this book weigh in with a fresh and, perhaps, even contrarian look at the positive impact of longer lifespans and the nation’s aging population.
Here are some highlights from the book:
Younger people may learn faster than older people but older people know more. Aging comes with emotional balance, improved perspective and better mental health—a combination of characteristics that, to many, comprises the very definition of wisdom. It is critical that we do not overlook the real talent available in a resource never before available in human societies—aging minds.
Pinchas Cohen, dean, USC Davis School of Gerontology: There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to growing older. Our challenge, in fostering the upside for today’s aging world, is to recognize those differences as opportunities for better treatments, solutions, and preventions that are specifically tailored to each individual.
Aging-science can afford all people the opportunity to learn and implement their best health strategies—in effect, every person will have the opportunity to be “right” for his or her own needs. That’s at the heart of my vision for personalized aging: arming each person with a unique blueprint for the best chance at maximizing his or her longevity.
My goal, and that of many in the gerontology community, is to build a consensus around the need for such studies, whose results will offer people a chance to customize their diets to the individual genes and family histories.
Such studies will require years, and large amounts of funds. Once completed, these large clinical studies can motivate millions of people to change their behaviors, dietary and otherwise, and save the Unites States billions a year in the cost of care for severe chronic diseases.
Joseph F. Coughlin, founder and director of AgeLab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: I fully believe that longevity is a gift, not a curse—but that we can only take advantage of it if growing old becomes something new: if we heed aging as a call to innovate.
The new face of old age is increasingly healthier, wealthier, and more educated. It is also female. Future retirees will include a far higher proportion of empowered women who are better educated than their mothers and have at some point participated at least part-time in the workforce.
A new opportunity that will enable older adult independence and financial security is education throughout the life span.
Continuing education programs will allow workers to remain sharp in the skills and technology of their professions.
The new business of education may be financed and provided by the government as an extension of existing schools and training centers. Or, it may evolve into a new form of lifelong learning—financed by individuals, unions, and employers—on the Internet or in schools yet to be developed.
Finally, the lasting social impact of the next generation of older people may be due simply to their renewed activism—that is, “old” becomes synonymous with re-engagement, more retirement, as civic engagement in older age becomes the new standard.
Marc Freedman: founder and CEO, Encore.org: We should be creating tax-advantaged vehicles like the IRA to help fund this transition. What about an IPA—an Individual Purpose Account aimed at the transition or transitions in one’s fifties and sixties?
Financial institutions are well placed to offer IPAs that integrate, streamline, and automate the processes for taking advantage of tax treatments, employer matches, investment options, loan programs, and other incentives.
Another proposal that’s been floated—lifelong learning accounts, or LiLAs—also might help workers save for the future education needed to jump-start encore careers. LiLAs would proved individuals with a tax credit for cash contributions to their own LiLA accounts, and allow employers a tax credit for contributions they make to the LilAs of their employees.
Micro Pell Grants should be available for those who want to take perhaps one encore career-related course per semester or earn an occupational certificate.
Baroness Sally Greengross, member, U.K. House of Lords; chief executive, U.K. International Longevity Center: What the world needs is a new path of ageing that stresses good health and ongoing productivity. This goal must build upon three pillars that are particular but not unique to the United Kingdom: preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease; creating age-friendly environments; and eliminating ageism from the workplace and all other aspects of society.
Philip A. Pizzo, former dean, Stanford University School of Medicine, founding director The Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute: Flexibility and adaptation are important to a life journey, as is being willing to develop new pathways and to celebrate the future instead of hanging on to the past. People often are uncomfortable with transitions and the personal and professional instability they generate. We become comfortable with who we are or have been, but uncertain of who we might be. We can become stuck in place and lose ground.
A. Barry Rand, CEO, AARP: People are reimagining their lives. They are applying their life experiences to carve out new paths, taking action to overcome fears and achieve their aspirations, and building a greater sense of community. They’re looking for new purpose—a cause or passion. As the first aging population to grapple with the meaning of this new phase of life, they must find a set of practices to help discover the way forward, recognizing that each individual’s lie is an experiment of one.
The cadre of voices in The Upside of Aging are meant to trigger conversation and transformation in the way we view aging. They do, whether you agree with all of them or not.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” writes Irving. “Aging can be really hard. But things are changing, and quickly. Millions of aging individuals across the globe are seeking new ways to remain active, engaged, and contributing members of their societies.”
Just ask Mick and Bruce.
By Paul Irving (Wiley, 270 pages, $39.95)