Today’s Solutions: November 29, 2021

There was a time—as strange as that may sound today—that people were looking forward to getting older. Until the late 19th century, it was cool to look old. Men did their best to appear older by wearing wigs powdered white. Clothing accentuated an older build: narrower, rounded shoulders, wide hips and jackets with slits in the back suggesting a stoop. For our ancestors, gray hair wasn’t a problem either. What’s more: older people weren’t written off, but continued to play an active and valuable role.
That’s very different today.
We live in a “younger is better” world where people spend billions of dollars to look younger. Older means “out” and, understandably, nobody wants to be out.
We are living the strange contradiction that we get much older than our ancestors and we keep our vitality much longer but we don’t want to be old.
The sad conclusion is that we are not fully enjoying what we have gained. We are getting all these healthy years added to our lives, but many of us are more concerned about the fact that we are no longer looking like we did in our thirties and forties.
Aging gracefully and enthusiastically is an art that begins with being willing and able to be completely happy and comfortable with who you are—whatever your age.

That brings me to the picture of Patty and Eric. That picture radiates the beauty of aging. Patty paints and I met her some years ago when she was exhibiting some of her paintings. We had a nice conversation about her art and we have been running into each other from time to time since then.
Patty is always a lot of fun and has great energy. But I became truly impressed when I recently met her with her son Eric. Eric is a healthy-looking, hard-working guy in his fifties—like me. And I suddenly realized what that means for the age of his mother.
I took the picture because I realized that it perfectly shows what we have gained in just a generation. Some 25 years ago Eric would have been close to his retirement and I know how the pictures of such people used to look.
And, 25 years ago, Patty would have been living for years in a retirement home and I might have never met her.
Patty, today, is in her eighties and still has her life ahead of her. She enjoys every day, loves to paint and to meet with her friends and is totally comfortable with who she is without having the need to frequent the offerings of the aggressive anti-aging industry.
Patty has mastered the art of aging and, in that way, she sets a shining example. Fortunately, she’s not alone. There are many people like Patty around the world, women and men who keep contributing to society and enjoying their lives—regardless of that random retirement age that some German politician set in 1889 (!).
Read the story below about the history of retirement and the great opportunities that await all of us when we, like Patty, keep taking good care of ourselves. And, to Patty, chapeau!
is a very critical social issue: an aging population in Western nations. Economists, politicians and media mainly focus on it as a “problem.”
More and more people are getting older; who is supposed to pay for their retirement? This is indeed a problem, but perhaps this problem also offers a wonderful opportunity.
We’re on the eve of a unique event: The largest and most idealistic generation in memory has been and is turning 65—the traditional retirement age. These baby boomers—born between 1946 and 1964—are healthier and more energetic than any previous generation and, by all accounts, they aren’t planning on sitting around the house in their golden years.
Over three-quarters of the boomers say they want to remain active in society and are looking forward to a new, productive phase of life in which ideas and a desire to serve society are important. Fears about aging populations sapping the resources of society may turn out to be completely unfounded as older people initiate the process of regenerating society.
Let’s refresh our memories: It was the baby boomers who made the 1960s a separate chapter in modern history. They were the ones who preached about love and peace, who demonstrated against nuclear weapons and wars, who pioneered alternative medicine and natural foods and who explored ways to create a more humane capitalism. They brought the Vietnam War to a close. They raised their voice for the Earth (the Greens), for feminism (Gloria Steinem) and against racism (Jesse Jackson).
Most of all, they sparked widespread hope for a better future and that hope has not yet been extinguished.
It all seems like a long time ago. But take note: Their children have long since left home, their mortgages are (largely) paid, and most of them have the time, the health, the means and the energy to rededicate themselves to the ideals which they first articulated 50 years ago.
More than half say they want to make time to serve the community. A majority of those want to be involved with teaching; other popular roles are nursing, health care work and caring for children.
If baby boomers put the ideals of yesteryear back atop their agendas, it will lead to nothing less than a social revolution. After all, they comprise the biggest generation in world history, twice the size of the previous one and one and a half times bigger than the generation that followed. In fact, baby boomers generally have the financial means to put their ideas into practice.
In the United States, people over age 50 own nearly half the country’s personal wealth. They are also the best-educated generation in history in nearly all countries. That combination of financial power and access to knowledge means that the coming years of the 21st century could mark a historic turnaround when the youthful dreams of the 1960s may become a reality.
Many baby boomers aren’t waiting for mandatory retirement. With the travails of their own parents’ retirements still fresh in their minds, they are planning to do things differently. In many cases, their parents experienced mandatory retirement as a premature and cruel banishment from society’s daily life. While they may have welcomed more free time, they regretted the accompanying loss of involvement and meaning.
The key to happy and healthy retirement years, according to a survey conducted for AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), is that people feel appreciated and have the chance to make a contribution to society.
This seems to contradict the golden dream of retirement that has grown up over the years. Financial planners and condo developers sell a vision of old age as a time of permanent vacation, preferably on the French Riviera or by the pool in a Florida resort. Advertisements and billboards show images of deliriously happy, tanned older people playing golf on manicured courses. That seems like a wonderful dream if you’re sitting in traffic on your way to a busy job, but it is increasingly an illusion.
For many people, the carefree life beside a golf course turns out to be a sad existence, devoid of sustaining commitments and lacking meaning.
After all, how much golf can you really play?
Japan, where 20 percent of the population is already 65 or older, is already grappling with these problems. Women frequently use the phrase sodai gomi (“large-sized waste”) for their retired spouses. Wives feel so burdened by their pension-age husbands who sit at home getting bored and telling them what to do that they develop all kinds of psychological complaints. Dr. Nobuo Kurokawa even coined a term for it: “Retired Husband Syndrome.” He has two important recommendations for his patients: get therapy and spend as little time with your husband as possible.
The modern notion of retirement as an escape, set apart from the rest of our lives, is barely a century old. Earlier societies saw things very differently.
Before the Industrial Revolution—even as far back as Mesopotamia and Babylonia—there was no thought of separating out the elderly and sidetracking them away from society. When Alexander the Great conquered Asia just prior to 300 B.C. his most-feared legion was comprised of 3,000 older men—the “Silver Shield”—whose life experience made them formidable warriors.
Even in ancient Rome, senior citizens were expressly chosen to fill the most important positions in society. The word “senate” comes from the Latin word “senex,” which means “old man” and is the root of the word “senior.”
In most native societies, status and prestige increase as the years pass. It’s difficult for us to imagine, but until the late 19th century, it was cool to look old. Men did their best to appear older by wearing wigs powdered white. Clothing accentuated an older build: narrower, rounded shoulders, wide hips, and jackets with slits in the back suggesting a stoop.
For our ancestors, grey hair wasn’t a problem. On the contrary, older people weren’t written off but continued to play an active and valuable role, even when they were no longer economically productive.
German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck set the retirement we still use back in 1889 when Germany began paying state pensions to people over age 65. In his time that made sense. After a life of unremitting labor, people were often frail and sick, unfit for the back-breaking jobs that dominated that era and nearly ready for the casket.
Indeed, Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state was mainly inspired by the fact that the greybeards of the time were slowing productivity in the factories. Since far fewer people lived beyond the age of 70, it was not a great financial burden for the German state.
The notion that society should take care of its older population is, of course, sensible and compassionate. It’s quite another story, however, when society forces individuals to retire, as is the case in many countries. Mandatory retirement ages have met with resistance from the moment they were introduced, both in Europe and the United States. Most employees felt it was humiliating to be written off.
So, with the help of insurance companies, resort developers and the travel industry, the whole image of old age was reshaped during the 1950s. Older people would no longer be told they had no right to work after their 65th birthday, but that they had the right not to work. They had the right to “golden years,” to a well-deserved vacation, until death came knocking.
That strategy succeeded. In 1950, half of all men worked beyond age 65. In 2000, the figure was less than 18 percent. In Europe and the United States, senior housing developments grew like wildfire. The message was always the same: You don’t have to worry about a thing; we’ll entertain you.
But early signs show that boomers will upturn traditional notions of what it means to be old, just as they did with what it means to be young in the 1960s and ’70s. The new sixty-somethings appear ready to spend their golden years in a more productive way. They are, in most cases, the most financially secure older generation in history. Freed from the necessity to make a daily living, many are preparing to tackle the challenges that face the planet.
The influence of this silver generation could be huge. In 20 years, one-quarter of the American population will be over age 65—the first time in U.S. history that more people are over age 65 than under age 18. And in the European Union the number of workers between age 50 and 64 will increase by 25 percent over the next decade while the number of workers aged 20 and 29 will decrease by 20 percent. Those demographics make it inevitable that the standard age of retirement will come up for discussion.
The European Union has called on its member states to adopt a law banning age discrimination, outlawed in the United States since 1967. Japan has raised the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65. And Australia and the United States have completely scrapped the requirement to retire. This is an inevitable development. If German Chancellor Bismarck were alive today, he would set the retirement age much higher.
Many changes are already in the works as the potential of the silver generation is realized. Some companies are starting to see the advantages of retaining older employees. This is commonly called “from boomer to boomerang.” Older staff members offer life experience and wisdom, and employees over age 40 have been shown to be more motivated, reliable and even productive—as long as no heavy labor is involved. They also call in sick less often.
One of the companies that has recognized the importance of older workers is Volkswagen. The car manufacturer initiated a 50 Plus program geared toward keeping older employees on the payroll. Corporate Executive Director Bodo Marshall explains why his company got rid of its early-retirement policy: “Older workers are indispensable to keeping the company competitive and profitable.”
Volkswagen’s program includes adjusting the working space of older employees to accommodate their changing needs, implementing an active health-care program and providing continued training for all employees (in the corporate world, most older workers are given substantially less training than their younger colleagues).
But the promise of the coming silver generation is about more than carrying on with the same work they’ve been doing for decades. The real hope lies with those who will make use of the talents they’ve developed, seizing the opportunity to act upon their ideas. They have the time and the energy to put their talents to work for good causes, from foster grandparent programs to environmental cleanups to human-rights projects. They can dedicate themselves to closing the gap between rich and poor by advising and guiding entrepreneurs in poor countries. Or they can pitch in to help with the challenge increasingly facing Western countries of integrating various cultures.
There is no lack of important, meaningful work in the world. A lot of promising initiatives do stall because of a lack of time and money. But the baby boom generation has both elements in ample supply. That’s a breakthrough that should not be missed—for the sake of our society and for the baby boomers themselves.
If the coming sixty-somethings succeed in replacing the retirement motto “free from work” with “free to work,” the world will be given something beautiful. The dull grey image of aging will take on a silvery shine.
For that I say, welcome to the Silver Age.
Other Optimist Daily articles like this:
With aging populations, companies rethink opportunities for older workers
Aging lessons: The things that let you thrive in old age are easier than you think
The most surprising top reason for retirement happiness
Research shows that retirement is not good for your brain and health
Low cost of living and great climate: the best country for retirement
Retirement is not the beginning of the end; it’s good for your health, says study
It’s easier to keep your aging mind sharp in rural areas, new study finds

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