The likelihood is, whatever your age, that you’re aspiring to be even older. Whether she thinks about it this way or not, every young woman who hopes to live long and happily aspires to being an old lady. And every young man an old man. The good news is, these days we have a good chance of getting there.

But while we’re encouraged to live long, we get a lot of mixed messages about how we regard the old, and ourselves as we age. Ours is a youth-focused culture that equates youth with beauty and excitement and age with un-beauty and tedium. How do we put it all together? With some difficulty, frequently!

But increasing numbers of the population are crossing the border into older territory. Due to increases in public health measures, people in the developed world, and increasingly the less developed world as well, are living longer and longer. We’ve added nearly 30 years to the average life expectancy in the US over the past century, jumping from roughly 47 for all in 1900 to 75 for men and 80 for women in 2004.

That is an immense change–one that you may take for granted, but one that neither our culture nor our social systems has any real precedent or preparation for. Soon 20% of the population will be over 65, up from 5% not long ago. This affects our lives in all directions–shaping our investment strategies, our aesthetics, our decisions around healthy lifestyles, our housing construction, our career trajectories, our patterns of family formation, our health and elder care system, our relationships with parents and children, our tax structure, our sex lives, and on and on.

In 2011 the first of the boomers will reach 65–which means we’ll get to see what their patterns of retirement are. There are predictions – based both on the economic downturn and on indications about choice – that many of boomers with their big work identification will not retire at all, at least not at 65, or they’ll move to a second career or realm of volunteer work, which means we’ll be seeing a new sector of productivity in our workforce.

In the coming years, we’ll be learning about what the new longevity means at every turn, since the boomers as a group will be more educated, and more well to do than elders past – and as a result they’ll be healthier longer as well, since health has a direct connection to socio-economics in our system.

Expanded longevity leads to new options for life sequencing and for life choices. Quite a few boomers will still be raising kids in later life – since our increased longevity has shaped the choice of many women and men today to start their families later than their parents did – a choice made possible by the twin agencies of birth control and the new longevity. If we didn’t expect to be around a good while longer, we couldn’t be starting our families at 35 or 40 or even later.

While increased longevity affects everyone, women experience it in special ways, both because they live longer than men on average, and because their circumstances are often very different from those of men. Women face a special form of ageism, since their social value is often linked to fertility and youth—even though grandmothers all over are essential to the lives of their families.

Anthropologists attribute the evolution of the human brain to the fact that humans are one of the few creatures who experience menopause. The existence of postmenopausal women who could help their toddler grandkids while the moms tended the newborns allowed toddlers to avoid having to grow up fast and gather their own food. As a result, their brains could grow bigger and mature longer. Many thanks to the grandmas past for that!

In spite of their service, women are more likely to live in poverty in old age than men, and because their husbands often pre-decease them, they tend more often to live alone in their later lives. These issues need addressing in terms of social security policy and the re-structuring of communities, and those are some of the issues we’ll be addressing in the next few days.

Chances of developing dementia increase with age, and since women live longer they have increased chances of developing dementia. While scientists work toward developing cures or means of slowing the rate of onset, it’s also key that we develop better care mechanisms than we have.

While aging involves losses, it also involves gains. For one, we as a society have an opportunity to discover on a large scale what wisdom comes with long life, and to incorporate that wisdom into our social structures. As elders live longer, we have our history and traditions present among us in new ways.

Gains may be gender-specific too. Women may also find that old age offers an escape from a lot of social pressures, and a chance to set their own agenda.

Clearly the scene is changing fast for all of us, both in terms of prospects and in terms of current reality. As a group we often buy into the ageist view and don’t want to think about the old or about ourselves becoming old. But that’s a formula for trouble – since if we don’t address the reality, we can’t re-shape it to work well. It’s time to explore all the issues that the new longevity presents –both the opportunities and the challenges, and to respond creatively to them.


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