Longevity 1.0

I keep tripping over this recent headline in all my on-line news sources: “Ninety Will Be the New 40 in 10 Years' Time”. Wow, poor timing on my part!

If you trace this headline to its content, it involves a subscription for the Reboot Your Age app which costs $34.95 per month or $299.95 annually. You can try before you buy with a free 10-day trial. And it is individualized! It is the product of two entrepreneurs who created a program to encourage users to develop healthy habits that will help reduce their physiological age, enabling them to feel younger than their calendar age. And it promises that it grapples with several of the factors that manifest during the aging process; it will slow the process down.

We appear hell bent on prolonging life. I think of this as an obsession with longevity. However, it is not clear why we are doing this. A fixation on avoiding aging (and death) seems already locked in without this new app to intensify our challenge. So, we stay alive longer: to what end? Do we have the culture, fiscal and human resources, social systems, societal norms or communal values that make longevity a good idea? Do we plan on creating these? Have our country’s patterns of ageism been resolved? How will we proceed to address these questions?

Watching peers, colleagues and other members of my demographic, I am often struck by what I call the “blank whiteboard” response in deciding what to do after employment. More poignantly, many will not leave employment because of the vacuum that decision would create in their lives. I often stare at the U.S. Congress and see, at least in part, a geriatric long term care facility.

For several years, I provided one day workshops for various health care corporate structures focused on the conflict they viewed as most resistant to resolution: intergenerational conflict. I learned a good deal during those years, and listened to many stories of the young and their experiences with their older colleagues. And I observed.

The formal study of generations has gradually developed, largely controlled by baby boomers who named those, like me, who preceded them “traditionalists” or “the silent generation”, names it seemed to me that reflected a subtle snarkiness. Even more amusingly, the generation that followed was so mysterious to them that they called it “Gen X”, creating a pattern with subsequent generations now named Gen Y, Gen Z and Gen Alpha (see, we get to start all over…). Millennials, who challenged the number dominance of the baby boomers, set their own parameters, and are called millennials more often than Gen Y.

These generational groupings are germane to longevity, as selected traditionalists and baby boomers persist as the persons controlling and exercising power over all these groups. I saw then and still see very little baton passing and I watch emerging generations waiting in the wings, wondering if they will ever have access to the exercise of power and direct influence. They have often observed to me: “We have to wait until they die”. The first time someone said that to me, I was shaken; I have heard it so often now that I rarely flinch.

We humans may indeed achieve even more extended longevity. The greater challenge, I believe, is what we think humans do with the added years. Apparently, passing batons or supporting and mentoring emerging generations is not as common as one might hope. Even with mentoring there may be strings attached. As one Gen X person shared with me, describing her hope for support from her baby boomer bosses: “They aren’t really mentoring me; they will help you out if you promise to do everything exactly as they did it and keep their pet initiatives alive. They are trying to create clones of themselves.”

More recently, many Gen Z persons have shared with me that they don’t ask older persons for help because they get lectures or criticism, much as the millennials once observed. Gen Z persons, it has seemed to me, have no intention of furthering the patterns, values or projects of those how preceded them. They want a different, and as they see it, better world. It is their view that the world being handed to them is something of a mess and they will need to fix it…a lot!

When I was personally trying to figure out how one becomes not just an old person but takes on the wisdom work of being an elder, one insight struck me as fairly reliable: elders serve by leaving center stage and becoming resources for the next generation of leaders who can then step forward to imagine and lead, to take center stage. This wisdom work may start with their relationships with their grandchildren or comparable surrogates, however in time it expands to all young people who are creating the future.

I feel distressed when I see increasingly large numbers of aging persons clinging to center stage, convinced that they are essential, and perpetuating phenomena and patterns we already know aren’t working all that well. I view this as a longevity nightmare. Not all, perhaps not even most aging or old persons are becoming elders. We need elders though, not old people committed to never adapting to their aging or the certitude of their death.

As is perhaps self-evident, with all these aging people we are accumulating, if several would choose to become elders or what I call wisdom workers, we could have an amazing planetary shift. Our young would have several persons as mentors, supporters, even cheerleaders and coaches. It could create a golden era where we have so many dedicated elders that we could create rapid and constructive change, resolving seemingly insoluble problems. Elders could provide history and knowledge, but more importantly wisdom about what may or may not work. The young could imagine beyond the limits of past thinking and doing.

So, longevity could be amazing. I have to admit though, I would like somewhat more thoughtful and robust reflections about why all these people are extending their lives and what it really means for the world we live in. Perhaps more significantly, I would like thoughtful and robust reflections about what alternatives exist to absorb all these old people who do not appear interested in becoming elders, but rather primarily in extending their lives and not dying. What are they trying to achieve, and why? It’s a really good question.

“The quality, not the longevity of one’s live is what is important”.

- Martin Luther King, Jr. -