Why We Fear Aging More Than We Should
Our culture tells us to fear a long decline. We should know better.
Over the past 40 years, our society has made growing older seem increasingly dangerous. Witness, for example, our current obsession with memory loss, which overlooks that most of life is about anticipation.
Here we are in kindergarten, looking forward to learning to read; in junior high, to our first kiss; in young adulthood, to finding our life partner; at 45, to obtaining a promotion. At each step, we are told what should come next, and how it will make life better. Having great expectations makes it possible to look forward to the life course — to address its challenges and recognize its happy surprises. Although we can’t point to the exact "heavenly" days when this happens, as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Experience, we accumulate a portion of "wisdom, poetry, virtue" by growing older.
And yet, today, we feel increasingly unprepared. Aging hasn't been viewed as a simple journey for some time. In 1933, Carl Jung, the psychiatrist turned philosopher, wrote: “Are there perhaps colleges for 40-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world? No, there are none.”
And we are still told today that we are unready, even though, in the 21st century, many more people are living longer and more vitally. We have more elders around us than ever before who can personally describe retirement, second careers, kayaking, living with chronic illness, volunteering and embracing a spiritual life.
So why are we so anxious about later life? Manufactured fear.
Later life is increasingly presented to us not as heavenly, but as daunting. Even though baby boomers are healthier, overall, than any previous cohort, our lives have been crammed by the media with dreadful data of new and fearsome medical findings linked to every body part — hair, gums, sexual organs, and, of course, the brain. The messages we are fed get more fearsome decade by decade.
But when medical or pharmaceutical research is far from being clinically ready, Dr. David Keefe of New York University Medical Center warns, “it’s predatory to not be circumspect" about conclusions or predictions, whether positive or negative. "Humility is an absolute requirement in this field," he says. "You’re dealing with people’s hopes and dreams.” Instead, these endless reports create a chorus proclaiming that aging is a collection of diseases. If that were true, then what's “next” would indeed be dreadful.
Is it ethical to make younger people dread the new longevity, as so many of us do? Is there any benefit, medically, to making people fear 80 more than 70, or 70 more than 60? We don’t tell women who plan to have babies to expect nausea, edema, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes or maternal mortality. But our decline culture demands that people aging past youth fixate only on the aspects of self that medicine hopes to fix. It's a mean lie, and it ignores the exhilaration of putting youthful trials behind us and embracing the pleasures of having grown into selfhood.
Leaving aside the doubtfulness of much of the medical data reported as news, its dominance in the media suggests how much we are all aged by our culture. The long decline view has infiltrated our expectations and relationships as well. Children learn some form of ageism by age 8, from adults, peers, or popular culture; we know this from studies like The Development of Children’s Prejudice Against the Aged by Leora W. Isaacs and David J. Bearison. Middle-ageism defeats our modest hopes of experiencing the American dream, and age bias bedevils our politics, as businesses cut midlife jobs and government agencies fail to act on midlife job discrimination. Ageism is the one prejudice we all face, although we can prevent it — if only we learn to anticipate it. As the poet Wendell Berry urges, “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts.”
Considering all the facts, then: Pursued as a solitary quest, positive aging is helpless against the larger powers that benefit from our fear. The real answer is to connect enthusiastically with one another, and fight back.