(Editor’s Note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging.)
There is a real problem with aging in America today — it’s not fast enough. I understand that “get old faster” is the most unlikely phrase to be printed on a T-shirt, but the truth is we need to age more quickly.
The need for accelerated aging is being driven by a reckless and out-of-control American adulthood. We’ve allowed the phase of life known as adulthood to invade both childhood and elderhood. More specifically, we’ve allowed the adults of today free rein to wreck our culture, our economy and the planet. More than anything else, we need for them to outgrow adulthood as swiftly as possible.
The Message: Strive for More!
We are living with a malignant enlargement of adulthood, and it is accelerating the speed at which people of all ages live their lives. The insatiable standards set down by contemporary American adulthood can never be satisfied no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you have, no matter how high you can jump. Adulthood always demands more. More. MORE!
The post-war baby boom generation is at risk for getting stuck inside an insidious and all-consuming concept of adulthood, and that is bad news for us all. What I refer to as a “cult of adulthood” is already preying upon American children as it relentlessly strips away fun, play, imagination and spontaneity and replaces those virtues with a grueling, and rigorously tested, staging ground for adulthood.
At the other end of the age spectrum, we find that older people are increasingly judged, and not according to the merits of age. Instead, the worth of an older person is determined by his or her ability to emulate a highly effective adult. People who still drive, still work, still run marathons and who still look, act and feel like young people are deemed to be successful. Those who can’t still do those things are… failures.
Research on happiness reveals that middle age is the unhappiest time of life.
The sooner the post-war generation can be rid of its fevered obsession with adulthood, the better off we will all be. We need to get old — faster.
Consider the Up Side
Fortunately, getting old fast has some very nice fringe benefits for the individual as well as our society.
For one thing, middle age in contemporary American society is no walk in the park. Research on happiness reveals that middle age is the unhappiest time of life. In fact, the 40s are, statistically speaking, the unhappiest decade of life. The only way out of the “inverted U of happiness” is to get older, and the faster the better. Older people also report being more satisfied with their health and personal relationships. As one 71-year-old man explained to me, “It takes a long time to get things right.”
Indeed it does.
The most common reaction to my desire to help us all get older faster goes like this: “Are you nuts?” These critics do have a point. For people living in a deeply ageist society, age and aging are defined exclusively in negative terms and nobody can reasonably wish for more of a bad thing.
‘Aging Is Life’
But that’s the problem isn’t it? We are surrounded (and sometimes overwhelmed) by a vicious distortion of a normal human experience. In fact, getting old has much in common with breathing. Breathing is good and, if we stop breathing, we stop aging. Breath is life. Aging is life.
It is time for America to undertake an honest reappraisal of aging. It is time to disrupt damaging stereotypes and create new ways of living, being and growing old. As a geriatrician (a medical doctor specializing in old age), I am well aware of the many difficulties that can accompany aging. I can also say that there has never been a better time to become an old person. As a human being, I know full well that every age has its griefs, its joys, its pains and its satisfactions.
Do not delay! Do yourself, and the world, a favor and get old as fast as you can.