I recently spoke with Dr. Bill Thomas, renowned geriatrician, author and mastermind of the Green House Project long-term care model (a more humane alternative to traditional nursing homes). His new book is Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life.
In it, he divides the baby boom generation into distinct groups that defined our adulthood and also traces the evolution of composite fictional characters over time. He uses these devices to examine the past and assess the present.
That brings him to how new subcultures are shaping our outlook and experience of older age — a stage of life beyond adulthood. The book culminates with the opportunity we have to turn this phase into one that is not only enriching on a personal level but also capable of uplifting all of humanity.
To help bring the ideas in his book to life, Thomas has turned them into a multimedia theatrical event — The Second Wind Tour — that will travel to 25 cities across the country from March 31 to June 6, 2014.
With its unique take, the tour has garnered multiple sponsors, among them AARP’s Life Reimagined, Capital Impact Partners and Merrill Lynch.
"Dr. Thomas and the Second Wind Tour gets to the heart of how we at Merrill Lynch believe the conversation about retirement needs to evolve,” says David Tyrie, Head of Retirement and Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Tyrie expects that the tour will spark conversation around the country about the opportunities and challenges of longer life expectancies.
Below, Thomas answers questions about the Second Wind book and tour:
Next Avenue: You present three subcultures you feel shaped the boomers’ adulthood: Squares, who were traditionalists and wielded the biggest influence; Activists and Hippies. Why did you apply this particular lens to the post-war generation?
What really captured my interest is how societies create subcultures when the dominant culture can’t solve an important problem. When I looked at the history of the post-war generation, I realized that we had this challenge of getting 80 million people out of childhood and into adulthood in 15 years and the dominant culture didn’t really have a way of doing that. There was a fracturing of culture as people pursued the paths offered by these different groups.
Why does it matter? I now see a generation that has to get out of adulthood and into elderhood and has no idea how to do it.
Based on history, I’m willing to predict that we’re again going to see the generation fracture into subcultures as people struggle to make sense out of this next phase of life.
This won’t be a replay of the 60s and 70s, but I do think that the dynamic of people seeking different paths as they move through this passage will prove itself to be an accurate prediction.
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Why did you include fictionalized composite characters in the context of your nonfiction social analysis?
I believe that there is a shortage of works that integrate the personal and the public together. What this book attempts to provide is a synthesis. It includes these really personal, private stories of composite characters and it puts them into the context of the time they’re living and what’s happening around them, real history. As we all struggle to make sense of our lives that’s actually the most effective lens — a blend of the public and the private.
Tell us about the subcultures you set forth in the second half of the book as you discuss society’s approach to aging — the Denialists; the Realists and the Enthusiasts.
The Denialists are intent upon forcing their will upon time and they believe that if they can just find the right treatment, therapy or supplement they can stop or reverse aging. So they deny the fact of aging and believe that sometime very soon they will have access to a technology that will stop forward movement.
They are a fascinating group of people because of how wholeheartedly the most aggressive among them embrace something that has never happened for any individual in the history of humankind. No one has ever grown young and yet they believe that not only will this be possible but that it will be possible for them. There’s an entire industry that’s emerging to support them in that fantasy. And they have a very large influence on our media.
The Realists understand the facts of aging. They don’t like it. They’re willing to take commonsense steps to resist it and they’re moving forward in a very grudging way that leaves very little room for joy or celebration. The Realists love things like flaxseed oil and crossword puzzles. They wear sensible shoes. They don’t believe in anti-aging miracle talk — they think it’s silly. But that doesn’t mean that they’re embracing their own self or their own aging — they’re not. In fact, they’re missing the value, the virtues that can be found in aging.
The third group is the Enthusiasts. They have a radically countercultural belief system, which is that there’s value, worth and dignity in age. They believe it’s the next part of the adventure, the next chapter in life and they want to experience it and to live it and to embrace it. The Enthusiasts, because they are the most countercultural, actually are the least visible and they have the most distinctive vocabulary and frames of reference that really separate them from the dominant culture.
I think there’s going to be a real contest over what subculture predominates in the coming decade or so.
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We tend to speak more about intergenerational warfare than about friction between the perspectives of various groups within a given generation.
Yes, the big cultural narrative often downplays that. But the really defining element of the 60s and 70s was the conflict within the post-war generation. And we’re going to see the resurfacing of this kind of really deeply felt authentic disagreement. I believe that there will be very strong emotions about the aging issues we now face.
You write that the Denialists and the Realists fuel ageism. How so?
The Denialists are violating a principle that has been in force through every part of recorded history, which is the rising generation ultimately takes the place of the older generation. That’s always been true but, for the first time, we have this denialist culture that says, 'No, excuse me, we’re not going to make way for the rising generation. We’re staying right here at the center of everything. And we’re going to maintain our youth permanently and we’re not going to be part of this ancient chain of one generation rising to take the reins from the previous generation.'
That’s a very radical and dangerous perspective. When you have a large influential subculture that is eager to violate a principle of human history as fundamentally as this, you’re inviting some very serious blowback.
The Realists practice 'scrolling.' They celebrate a kind of righteously-dusted age that is on the precipice of what we would think of as old age. When a person moves past that point, they’re scrolled off the screen and a new one takes their place.
I use the example of AARP Magazine covers. If you go back and look at those covers you realize that they show a steady stream of people at a certain moment of maturity. When they’re older than that they never come back.
The danger that the Realists don’t appreciate because they’re so used to ‘scrolling’ is that they can be ‘scrolled.’ In some ways this is a terrible prospect for the baby boom generation — to just be scrolled off the cultural screen, to be made irrelevant and just dismissed. The Realists are inviting this by not fully accepting the truth of their own aging.
Why should we appreciate and embrace a stage beyond adulthood, the one you call 'elderhood'?
Americans have been told a lie that says adulthood lasts forever. In the context of American society that means that you are meant to always prioritize performance, always be striving, always be working, always be reaching and that anything less than that represents failure.
In fact, what millions of people are waking up to and recognizing is that that is a very difficult way of life and one that gets more difficult as you get older. It’s a game that you are doomed to fail if you decide to play it because the older you get the harder it is to simulate the behavior of a person in their mid-forties.
Right now in our culture, the most admirable old people are the people who act like young people. There’s no room for old people who act like old people, who leave adulthood behind.
But this idea that you’re supposed to remain an adult forever actually has very little or no precedent in human history. Cultures around the world and throughout history have had a station of life beyond adulthood. This book is primarily a cry from me saying there is life beyond adulthood, that not only can you put aside the obligations, responsibilities and behaviors of adulthood but that you’re meant to do so and that it’s not failure but success. What I’m arguing for is opening ourselves to the possibilities presented by a new developmental journey.
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Can that kind of vibrancy co-exist with physical decline?
We’ve been physically declining since childhood. Our culture normalizes that. When you're an adult, there’s no penalty or stigma for the fact that you can’t run the 50-yard dash as fast as you used to. So, what I see in terms of the conversation here is de-stigmatizing normal changes that are associated with age and then building a cultural narrative that celebrates those parts of aging that are actually bringing forth new virtues.
Older people shouldn’t be paying a price for simply being who they are. It creates a kind of alienation from our own selves. We’ve come to believe that aging is a kind of betrayal rather than an opportunity for growth.
You wrote that old age historically served as a check on the excesses of adulthood. Why do we need to restore this role for elders?
The adulthood we’re living in today isn’t the adulthood of half a century ago. Adulthood itself has been transformed and we barely notice the transformation because we’ve been living inside of it.
The adulthood we have today is hyper-caffeinated, hyperactive and, in many ways, hyper-materialistic. We use these yardsticks to measure success, which have been amplified and magnified by the post-war generation. Everybody talks about the post-war generation’s passage out of childhood into adulthood and how fractious that was, but almost no one points to the fact that that generation remade adulthood in their own image and remade it in such a way that it has now largely escaped the bonds that have normally restrained adulthood in the past.
As a result, we’re in greater need of that gentle hand on the shoulder from elders than we’ve ever been. In native tribal cultures, the elders speak for those who can’t speak for themselves — for the children and the generations yet to be born. We have virtually none of that in our society and adults are free to give rein to their wildest impulses.
I would love to see a society that rebalances adulthood, elderhood and childhood. Children and elders have suffered but so have adults. We deserve a healthier, more balanced life cycle.
Do you think there’s also perhaps an ethical component that’s missing that elders can somehow help reinstate?
By nature I’m an optimist — I do believe that’s possible.
What gives me great hope is the Millennial generation. I see in them the beginnings of a counterreaction against contemporary adulthood. A lot of Millennials are saying, 'Hey, you know what? I actually want a life. I want to do work that’s meaningful to me. I don’t want to surrender my life entirely to my career.'
It’s so funny to watch some members of the baby boom generation raging about this and thinking this is the worst thing ever when I’m like, ‘Yeah, hurray for you.’ You know what the Millennials need? They need elders as real allies. I could easily see a partnership developing between the Millennial generation and elders, working together to really contain and deflate adulthood as the dominant organizing principle in our society.
(MORE: The War Between the Generations Is Nonsense)
You discuss three virtuous qualities of elders in the book — slow, deep and connected. How did you arrive at these?
That part of the book comes from my practice as a geriatrician and spending a huge amount of time with very old people. I got to see how people near the end of their lives view well-being, what they value, what they want and don’t want and how, on reflection, things that they thought they knew and believed give way to deeper understandings.
What’s going to matter to you at the end is having the courage to step off the treadmill where you run faster and faster to stay in the same place and deciding to live slow. That has value for you today, not when you’re 90 — today.
As for living deeply, older people really focus much more on relationships and a kind of knowing way of dealing with the world. They’re much less interested in flash and dash and much more interested in authenticity and knowingness. Those things take time to cultivate; living more deeply is very hard to do when you’re living as fast as you can. So slowing down actually enables a deeper perspective on life.
Lastly, the elders taught me that life is a team sport and aging is a team sport. The only real losers are the people who try to play alone.
What matters to very old people are a small number of deeply felt, treasured personal relationships. When I say ‘connected’, I don’t mean having 5,000 Facebook friends. I mean really knowing a handful of people and really sharing life with them. So ‘slow, deep and connected’ seem to be strategies for helping a person to outgrow adulthood. That’s why I wrapped up the book with these qualities. As a doctor I think it’s imperative that I offer a prescription for a better way of living.
(MORE: The Lost Art of Conversation and Connection)
You’re about to hit the road with this book and you’ve reimagined the booktour concept. How?
I think the Second Wind Tour is evidence of a new era in ideas, books and social change — an era of nonfiction theater.
Nonfiction books like Second Wind can be converted into a compelling live theater event. The Tour is really a companion to the book’s ‘second wind’ theme in that it challenges the conventional narrative of decline in midlife and beyond. I want people to see, hear, feel, and connect to the power that arises from finding a ‘second wind’ in life. We’re going to live on a bus for five weeks and take the ideas around the country. The show will be performed in front of 20,000 people and that impact will be leveraged through social media to touch many, many more people.
There’s no ballroom, podium or PowerPoints. We invested in very high-quality production values. The multimedia sets were designed by Tony award-winning designer John Arnone. I’ve always been a great believer in the power of art to change people’s lives and the event we created combines nonfiction with art.
How's the event structured?
The production has three acts.
Act I is a series of five monologues where the speakers talk about turning points in their life, about their ‘second wind,’ their loves and losses. Like the book’s composite characters, these authentic voices will allow the audience to fill in their own story. Three speakers, including me, stay with the show the entire tour; the fourth stays with us for a week at a time; and the fifth comes from each city we visit, so there’s always a local component.
In Act II, I introduce the notion of thinking in multiple dimensions. I then segue into Michael Rossato-Bennett’s Alive Inside work and we show a very compelling piece of his film [about the effects of music on people with dementia]. The clip ends with the musician Samite Mulondo and his work with child soldiers in Africa and people with dementia in the U.S.A. As the credits roll, Samite walks off the screen and onto the stage and performs live for the audience.
In Act III, I come back on stage and give a very short speech that says ‘You are the creator of the third act; it plays out beyond the walls of this theater and it begins now.’
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