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Why Aging in America Faces an Uphill Battle

The concerns raised by the author of a new book on the subject


(This adaptation from Aging in America: A Cultural History by Lawrence R. Samuel, is excerpted with permission by University of Pennsylvania Press.)

In 2011, Pfizer launched a marketing campaign that was remarkable in its approach to aging. In its campaign, which is still running, the giant pharmaceutical company drew upon findings of a Pew Research Center study that illustrated the negative views about aging that many Americans held. Older age was a stage of life defined by a loss of physical and cognitive abilities, those surveyed tended to say; the reluctance of young adults to even discuss aging was also confirmed in the study.

Pfizer started Get Old to “challenge misperceptions of aging and drive new conversations that inspire people of all ages to take action on their own health,” its website stated, knowing that a new and more accurate understanding of getting older would likely be good for business. If aging was as good a time as any to “begin new dreams and adventures;” the company’s thinking went, more people might be interested in therapies and medicines that could help them pursue such experiences by living longer, healthier lives.

An Uphill Battle for Ageism

While Pfizer’s message is encouraging, aging in America faces an uphill battle when it comes to negative views of older people.

Youth still rules the day in many countries, particularly the United States, making it difficult to overturn prevailing views about older citizens.

The very concept of aging remains a social taboo, eliciting fear and dread despite all the research showing that getting older is usually an enjoyable part of life.

One might think that with so many older people around, any and all forms of ageism should disappear. With more older people on the planet than ever before in history, this line of thought goes, it makes sense that “age-friendly” societies should emerge, with no need for champions for the elderly. But there is currently little evidence to support this sanguine vision of the future. Youth still rules the day in many countries, particularly the United States, making it difficult to overturn prevailing views about older citizens.

The Millennial generation is enormous too, after all, and today’s young adults are echoing boomers’ capacity to dictate cultural norms through their sheer numbers and consumer power. In addition to the demographic and economic factors, there’s little doubt that a psychological component is also at play in persistent ageist attitudes and behavior. Our discomfort with age is directly related to fears about physical decline and death, with older people being reminders that all of us are subject to the ways of the march of time. Fears about becoming a victim to Alzheimer’s disease are especially fierce these days, fostering a more general dread about approaching old age.

Modern Day Ponce de Leons

The ever-growing anti-aging industry is only advancing our trepidation of getting older and reinforcing our ageist inclinations. Precious little evidence has been produced to indicate that any therapy or technique slows or reverses the aging process, yet, much to marketers’ delight, consumers seem determined to find a fountain of youth. Modern-day Ponce de Leons are following the tradition of many in the past in search of some magical treatment with purported rejuvenating powers. Yet such therapies carry much greater potential health risk than earlier ones.

The radical life extension movement that has been around now for a few decades is a more extreme attempt to follow in the footsteps of Methuselah. The recent entry of tech company executives, dot-com billionaires, and venture capitalists to the anti-aging scene has taken the effort to an entirely new level. Wild success in this mortal world is not enough for these captains of industry who believe they can conquer nature through science and technology, not unlike the way they conquered the universe of information. Billions will be spent by these techies on finding a solution to the problem of aging and, upon realizing it is a far more difficult undertaking than building a better browser or search engine, I believe they will return to doing what they do best — making money.

The Good News About Aging in America

Along with the bad news about the future of aging in America is some good news.

One reason to be optimistic is the growing number of organizations that collectively compose a new movement of study in the field, such as the North American Network in Aging Studies. It was founded in 2013 by a handful of humanities and social science scholars whose research focuses on the larger, more existential issues of aging. More broadly, its journal addresses cultural articulations of aging and old age, precisely where I believe the field should now be directed.

Exploring the cultural dimensions of aging, particularly those related to boomers, leads to other reasons one should not be despondent about the graying of the United States. Though boomers are clinging to the remnants of their rapidly fading youth, rather than leading a social revolution dedicated to achieving equality for older people, it’s fair to say they are redefining the concept of aging for the better.

The model of aging forged in the postwar era when boomers were children is a shadow of what it used to be, particularly when it comes to retirement.

Rather than end one’s career at a predetermined age, usually 65, to embark on a life of leisure in a sunny, warm place, most of today’s sexagenarians and septuagenarians are working as long as they can and are staying put in their homes. For them, their third act is not all that different from their second, a lifestyle choice that is serving to blur the lines of age.

A Wonderful Development

Although some are suffering from a kind of identity crisis, not quite sure of their mission in life, this blending of middle age with seniority is helping to reintegrate older people back into the mainstream. This is a wonderful development whose significance cannot be underestimated; the transformation of one’s latter years from a distinct stage of life to one that is fully incorporated into the full life span represents a historic change that bodes well for aging in America.

Best of all, perhaps, the assimilation of older Americans into the sweep of everyday life offers the possibility of lessening ageism.

As the Golden Girls-like image of seniors further recedes into our memory, the divisions between young and old will likely shrink, bridging generations. Discrimination based on age in both the workplace (try getting a good job or even an interview if you’re past 50) and in social arenas may very well diminish as older folks are not seen as being a separate, less competent part of the population. I

It is highly unlikely that the reverence for older citizens that reigned from the nation’s founding through the early decades of the 20th century will ever return, but there is a good chance that boomers will gain more respect in their later years as they normalize the aging experience.

A Renaissance for Older Americans?

Part of the reason I expect there to be a renaissance of sorts for older Americans is that they will collectively change and improve the nation’s employment landscape.

Although they are not yet planning (or even thinking about) it, tens of millions of boomers will eventually require a host of services that will exponentially expand the elder care industry. Most octogenarians or nonagenarians will require assistance in health care, housing, transportation, and other basics of daily life as they age in place, making each of them a prime job opportunity for millions of younger people. (Nearly 90 percent of those over 65 want to stay in their residence for as long as possible, and 80 percent say they believe their current home is where they will always live, according to an AARP survey.)

Because of their heavy contribution to the economic well-being of the country, I suggest, today’s older Americans — the wealthiest and most consumer-savvy generation of seniors in history — will be treated in a kinder, gentler way than they are today. Until they go off to the big Woodstock in the sky, boomers will continue to drive the American economy. This power will literally buy them some insurance protecting them against overt forms of discrimination in the years ahead.

A Buffer Against the ‘Aging Crisis’

Boomers’ economic clout will also serve as a buffer against the so-called aging crisis as they strain government resources due to their numbers. The system will not crash as many pundits predict, primary because it is in the government’s best interests for it not to. Local, state, and the federal government adapt all the time to social change, and the coming age wave, despite its enormity, will be no different.

Politicians will become increasingly friendly to older voters over the course of the next few decades, knowing that their careers rely heavily on appealing to “gray power.” The fact that aging boomers will be a source of millions of jobs will be additional incentive for elected officials to ensure that laws and policies are enacted that cater to that constituency.

One could even argue, in fact, that the age wave represents not a coming apocalypse but rather an approaching golden age in American history.

The Next Big Cause: Older Citizens

From a historical perspective, the United States does best when it has a singular, grand cause of some kind; these causes (notably the two world wars, the Great Depression and the Cold War) function as a vehicle for our normally divisive population to temporarily put our differences aside to pull together. A massive wave of older citizens could be that cause, with Americans of all social divisions more or less united in the noble mission of caring for that group of people.

Most younger Americans will have some personal connection to at least one older person, usually a family member, making the idea of an emerging senior-friendly society not that far-fetched.

The Unfulfilled Wish

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, I believe that finding a cure for aging will remain an elusive enterprise, making the quest for a giant leap in longevity an unfulfilled wish. Although scientists are a lot closer to identifying the biological basis for aging, they may never really completely understand the reasons why our bodies become older and eventually die.

One hopes that more people will embrace the idea that aging is a natural part of life, and that attempts to make the clock run backward are counter to the most basic laws of biology. The ethics and morality of anti-aging are equally perverse, I contend, although I confess the age-old dream of discovering a fountain of youth is a compelling one that may never go away.

Legitimate efforts to extend life are likely to lead to real progress in ameliorating chronic diseases, however, a positive outcome of what is for the most part a misguided enterprise. It is fortunate we can end this story on such a happy note as we embark on what will no doubt be an interesting next chapter in American history.

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By Lawrence R. Samuel
Lawrence R. Samuel is author of Aging in America and Freud on Madison Avenue. He is founder of Boomers 3.0, a consultancy dedicated to helping organizations develop meaningful relationships with boomers in their third act of life. 

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