The Third Third

The Boom-A-Longs

I attended the Age Boom Academy at Columbia University last week.  A five-day intensive study for journalists of the issues generated by demographic projections that place 20 percent of the U. S. population over 65 by the year 2030, the Academy was presented by Columbia’s School of Journalism and Mailman School of Public Health, and underwritten by the Atlantic Philanthropies, AARP, and The New York Times.

Our first assignment from Age Academy founder and Chairman of ReServe Jack Rosenthal was to find another name for our aging generation -- a reflection, perhaps,  of our own ageism and fear of being old, and/or of the proud exceptionalism Baby Boomers have cultivated throughout our lives.  Who us?  Getting old?  Being elderly?  Labeled frail and needy?  Crippled by chronology as well as debt?  A burden to our children and society?  Facing down the fact that we and/or those we love will be among the 40 percent who experience dementia at age 85 and above?  Running out of time?


A little perspective:  Indeed, we are, happily, living longer. The challenge, it seems, is to live longer happily.  As individuals, and as a society. 


It should be good news, after all,  that in the course of the last century civilization and modern medicine have added 30 years to one’s life expectancy in the developed world (though lifespans in developing countries still lag far behind).  Infant and childhood mortality have declined dramatically as have premature deaths from heart disease and cancer.  So why all the angst and anxiety about life at 60, 70, 80 and beyond?  We simply have not adjusted our thinking, the model, or any of the social systems to accommodate these extra years.  We continue to retire around 60, cash in on Social Security and Medicare, and to some extent, sit around growing old and waiting for the other shoe to drop. 


We have been particularly deaf, dumb, and blind to what is arguably a whole new life-stage, the good and healthy years after our careers have been made and our families grown, the years between middle age and real old age.  Granted, we are stretched a little thin at the moment, caring for our parents at the end of life and sometimes helping to launch our now-adult children and still working because we think we have to; we don’t feel we have the time or energy to apply to the wholesale adjustment that seems to be required.  And yet, if we don’t. . . if we don’t, the outlook is inexorably grim -- and we deserve to be dismissed as just one more larger than usual cohort of the sick, old, and gray, and worn out -- instead of as creative and resourceful agents of change for education, housing, employment, healthcare, transportation, and more.


Baby Boomers are like Antoine de St. Exupery’s elephant swallowed by a boa constrictor -- a huge demographic bulge -- that can, it seems, either immobilize the population, or nourish it.  The best teachers at the Age Boom Academy began to frame the possibilities for the latter -- and I’ll return to their thoughts in upcoming posts.  In the meantime, here’s my suggestion for what we might call the population we are now with its myriad demographic implications:  “Boom-a-longs.” 


More later.  Or more of your thoughts now.

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