Yesterday I finished reading a new book by Jo Ann Jenkins, the CEO of AARP, called Disrupt Aging—A Bold New Path To Living Your Best Life At Any Age. Not only did it remind me that the prejudice of ageism is alive and well in our country, it suggests that the way we think about aging and retirement is due for a big shift. While I didn’t find the ideas in it as bold as advertised, it did get me thinking about aging and retirement in a few new ways. I was also reminded that the only way such a disruption can ever occur is when enough of us begin to see, think and talk about new and positive ways we can all approach aging in the days to come.
One thing is for sure—humans are incredibly adaptable. And once we grow accustomed to something, it seems like it has been that way forever. Aging and retirement are like that. Even though most of us know we are aging much, much differently from our grandparents and parents, we tend to forget their experience and the world they lived in was very different. While a long leisurely retirement seems like a given for many baby boomers, a large portion of our grandparents were lucky if they were able to stop working before they died.
Let us not forget that regular monthly Social Security payments didn’t exist until 1940 with an official “retirement age” of 65. Based upon the average life expectancy at the time of 58 years, only those fortunate to still be alive would ever claim the benefits. With such a discrepancy between life expectancy and age of benefit, only a portion of the population ever reaped much of the benefits. After all, the original purpose was to provide a safety net for elderly people without the financial means to live life without working.
Fast-forward a mere 25 years. By 1960 life expectancy jumped to nearly 70 years old. Suddenly most people could imagine a time when they would be able to stop working and generating income to live on for the remainder of their lives. Helping people as they aged even further, in 1966 those 65 and older became eligible for Medicare. So when you think about it, only within the last 50 to 60 years has the idea of certain level of financial security, leisure-time, along with healthcare security become a given. And now, as a 61-year-old female, I have a “life expectancy” model of 20 or more years in which I will be potentially able to draw both Social Security and Medicare Benefits.
Like most baby boomers, I am aware that some of that money that I paid into Social Security and Medicare was paid for from my income. But truth be told, if I live to 85 (as is projected) or even longer which is entirely possible, I will draw out more than I put into the fund. Most of us don’t like to think that way because, as I said before, we have grown accustomed to thinking it is something we not only deserve but are entitled to collect, while we live out the remainder of our lives.
Before any of you attempt to defend your right to that money, please know that the book didn’t address that issue whatsoever. Taking a much more politically correct view, along with a position that represents millions of AARP members, Jenkins tiptoes around most controversial questions. Yet, the biggest issue she presents is how we as a society continue to view aging even though so much has changed through the years. In other words, our world has changed but our thinking about aging and retirement is light-years behind the time.
A few out–dated ways of thinking about aging
- We tend to collectively believe that aging is a huge societal problem and older people are seen as a burden or mostly a problem that needs to be fixed.
- While we do share responsibility for certain parts of aging like taking good care of our health and our finances—the choices, options, and abilities are not equal for everyone. Depending upon our sex, our race, our education, and our socio-economics, we either have advantages or disadvantages that should be considered.
- The best we can hope for as we age is a life of ease, comfort, reasonably good health (and a little entertainment) while we wait out the remainder of our lives.
- Getting older is all about increasing decline and dependency.
- We must do everything we can to be young, or at least seen as young because only the young have something valuable to offer the world.
- We tend to blame most of our age-related limitations on getting older when many of those limitations actually come from an environment and culture that was designed to encourage and support the young.
- Seniors who work are taking jobs away from young people and adding nothing to the economy.
- Instead of seeing all of life as a continuous process of growth and development, many of us consider aging as either having “arrived” or over the hill.
- We stop celebrating the achievements and milestones of a growing and evolving human once we retire as though nothing worthwhile is occurring.
- Once we retire or consider ourselves a senior, we often stop planning who we want to become in the days ahead—Jenkins calls that “mindless aging.”
If we think about it, most of us can probably come up more ways that our thinking about aging can and should be disrupted. It is becoming easier to see the discrimination in the media about such issues, but most of that is just reflecting common beliefs within our culture. And let’s face it; most of us are guilty as well. Any time we make fun of an older person’s capacities, anytime we buy a birthday card insinuating that a person is “over the hill” at a certain age, anytime we focus on the contributions of the young at the expense of the older and wiser, we add to the problem.
What can we do? The book offers three areas where disruption is most needed. They are in the areas of health, wealth, and self. Jenkins covers each of these in detail:
Health: Jenkins says, “ First, we need to begin to focus on physical and mental fitness instead of diminishment, on preventing disease and improving well-being instead of just treating ailments.” She also suggests that we become partners in our own healthcare, instead of passive patients. A huge key to our ongoing fitness and well-being is dependable access to good health care for all.
Wealth: According to Jenkins, “We also need to understand that wealth doesn’t mean becoming rich beyond your wildest dreams. It does mean having financial resilience to not outlive your money.” Jenkins promotes the idea that because so many seniors will want to and need to continue to work by necessity, that an “active, employed older populations has the potential to be more of an economic boom than a social challenge.” She firmly believes that older people will be key drivers of economic growth, innovation and new value creation in the future.
Self: As Jenkins states, “ …we must change the way we view ourselves and our inner lives from aging as decline, to aging as continuous growth.” Instead of diminishing, Jenkins suggests that we “develop a sense of purpose and positive self-image” in ways that will increase our confidence and keep us actively engaged in all that life offers.
Of course, those three issues are also tied to a few other ideas like the importance of where and how we want to live in the future. Ninety percent of all adults say they want to “age in place” but either ignore the reality of their current home and community or insist on remaining in locations that are not supportive of advancing physical limitation. But think about it, our homes today usually reflect a time when life expectancy was less than fifty. Rather than update our thinking and designs, we blame an aged person for having the limitations of not being able to adapt—rather than redesigning the structure to fit the age and capabilities of the population. That mindset needs to be disrupted.
Another area of our lives that the book suggests addressing is financial literacy. Not only are most people struggling to live day-to-day, very few are putting away money for retirement. Jenkins suggests that “What if, instead of saving for retirement, we think of it as saving for life?” Of course, the added idea in this category is that rather than doing our best to be debt-free and spending less than we bring in, we must pull away from a consumer society that encourages debt and buying things at all cost. A key is both financial literacy and honest awareness of what really matters in a person’s life. In my opinion, rightsizing is the perfect solution.
One of the most valuable suggestions I found in the books was the encouragement to “change the rules” that most of us have grown up believing in the area of aging. She suggests that we look at things like better transparency in healthcare, better management of Medicare costs and services, the need to reward caregivers, securing the solvency of social security, encouraging personal savings, promoting ongoing learning and education, and readapting our environment for an aging population.
While this book didn’t cover everything I believe is important to positive aging in the days to come, it did raise many important questions. Most of us who are approaching an age when we can retire tend to forget that in terms of human lifespan it really hasn’t been around very long. That means we must all design how we will play it out in the years to come. If life itself is an ongoing path of learning, growing and experiencing, maybe retirement as we often think of it needs to be rethought in a more positive, contributing and life-enhancing way.
Perhaps the SMART approach is to always remember that change will happen regardless of whether we like or dislike things just as they are. Recognizing that as truth, then we might as well join the conversation about the disruption of aging in order to experience it in the best possible way.
How are you disrupting aging? Please share in the comments below.