The Graying of America


| November/December 2000


Thanks to the miracles of medical science, we are experiencing an extension of the average human life span and seeing far greater numbers of healthy, educated old people in our society. This comes at a paradoxical time. In the past, respect for the wisdom of the elders was a central tenet of human societies--especially in indigenous populations, whose elders served as keepers of the cultures' knowledge. But today, in technological countries such as ours, respect has faded into bare tolerance, as we demand that older people act, look, and talk young. Our refusal to honor the elderly reflects our meager respect for life itself.

As America grows old, this view is bound to change radically. Aging as we have known it will no longer automatically be seen as a time of disability, mental decline, and diminished energy. Many people will remain active and alert into a second century. When I imagine the potential of such a long life, I am dazzled at the thought of living out all the hidden facets of my personality: my unused talents, my suppressed yearnings to see the world, my desire to offer service, my search for knowledge and love, my wish to test my strengths and fears and talents. Endless possibilities.

Until the 19th century, most people didn't age; they died. A hundred years ago, precious few Americans reached the age of 65; today, 33 million of us have, and we're just a decade away from the first wave of baby boomers officially becoming senior citizens. Although our media and culture are still focused on youth, the United States is becoming a mature country. With the expectation of greater longevity, many of us will become less likely to follow the traditional linear life plan: moving through 12 to 18 years of education, then working full time for 30 or 40 years, and retiring for a period of long-promised relaxation and reflection. What if we could intersperse education, work, and leisure repeatedly throughout our lives?

We can already see the popularity of sabbaticals, phased retirement programs, flextime, and retraining programs to help older workers find new careers. This is only the beginning of a much wider trend. The American worker of the 21st century may dip in and out of the workforce numerous times, seizing the opportunity to bicycle around Asia, earn master's degrees in both engineering and poetry, stay at home with children, write a novel, and do volunteer work in Africa.

When a growing percentage of the population lives past 100, we will see what happens to the spiritual and psychological direction of our culture. As I have lived longer, I have been seeing the earlier dramas, treasures, and goals of my life as part of a learning curve--intrinsically neither wonderful nor bad. As I look back, I understand that actions I once thought praiseworthy actually caused harm, and things I judged harshly simply indicated an innocent narrow-mindedness at the time. In short, as I grow older and perhaps wiser, the meaning of life rests more on my willingness to see that outside goals were not as important as I thought them to be. There was no prize waiting for me if I just did enough things the right way. It is this endless pursuit of the prize that focuses our energies on things that don't turn out to matter as much as we think--career goals, personal wealth, fancy vacations, public recognition. When we are freed from the quest for success by outside measures, the quality of our day-to-day lives again becomes important to us. And this growing attitude will bring a marked--and delightful--difference to American life in the future.

Gay Gaer Luce is the founder and, for the past 16 years, leader of the Nine Gates Mystery School, which teaches individuals to tap into their personal energy and spirituality. She is the author of five books, including Body Time and Longer Life, More Joy.