The threatening finger of the coronavirus pandemic is drawing attention, paradoxically, to one of the major revolutions of recent generations: the age revolution.
“This is a revolution on the scale of the agricultural revolution or the technological revolution,” says Prof. Israel Doron, head of the Center for Research and Study of Aging at the University of Haifa, Israel.
The age revolution, he says, is made up of two elements: a dramatic rise in life expectancy and a significant decline in the birthrate. For example, 100 years ago the average life expectancy in developed countries was 50, for both women and men. In 1950 it approached 70 and today it’s around 85.
“Had the coronavirus broken out in the ‘60s it wouldn’t have been noticed,” says a friend of mine, a journalist who’s around 70.
Health and socioeconomic questions have attracted a lot of attention in the debate on the age revolution. How does the increase in life expectancy affect spending on health? How do we fund retirements that are getting longer?
The pandemic is stirring heated debate on the issues of age and attitudes toward the elderly. Some people argue that most of the restrictions for preventing the spread of the virus should be placed on its main victim – the elderly. They say older adults must be kept in isolation and strictly monitored while younger people can still go to work and school within certain limits so as to minimize the damage to the economy.
Some people say outright that the discussion on health policy is never devoid of economic considerations and that it’s appropriate to ask what price society should pay to minimize mortality among people not expected to live much longer. They note that an economic collapse leading to unemployment, poverty and a loss of security will also exact a price in human lives.
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Though many of the people who voice these thoughts are themselves older adults threatened by the coronavirus pandemic, and even though the policy being implemented is based on solidarity and saving lives at any price, there have been moments when it has seemed as if a polarization between the young and old had developed.
Dancing with risks
The epidemic has reminded us that aging, as a social phenomenon or as a biological process, hasn’t vanished from the world in an era when many older people are going out, enjoying themselves and traveling abroad. The appearance and lifestyle of many older adults are the opposite of the traditional images.
And it’s not only a matter of images, but also of decisions and lifestyle changes. I only have to look in the mirror to see this. My eldest daughter was born when I was 54. Her wonderful pediatrician once joked: “At our age people are planning their retirement, and you’re sitting on the floor in my waiting room and playing with her. Look how young this is keeping you.”
He was right. My father, when he was as old as I am now, was already a pensioner and focusing on his hobbies. Unlike him, I made significant changes in my work at age 58, and I might make more changes in the future.
As far as it’s up to me, I plan many more years of work. The pandemic has given me a reminder, politely, that nature still distinguishes between the young and the less young and that I’m invited to plan all the changes I can think of – as long as I remember that dancing in the living room with my 7-year-old daughter doesn’t remove me from the risk group.
Prof. Doron, who edited the 2013 Hebrew-language book “Age in Israeli Society: Social Construction of Old Age in Israel,” believes that there is a gap between the reality of aging and society’s image of it. But this image helps shape the reality.
“Ageism means obstructions that prevent older people from being accepted to positions, jobs and roles, on the grounds that they’re too old, along with a distancing and arrogant attitude,” Doron says. “The good news is that there are gradual processes of change in society's image of aging. To give one example from the world of culture: There are excellent films with stars like Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Diane Keaton in which age hasn’t eroded their movie career.”
Roy Koren is a co-founder of Senior Market Israel, a firm that consults on marketing to older people. “The new older adult is an unfamiliar phenomenon,” he says. “We don’t have yardsticks for understanding their way of life. People your age don’t live and don’t grow old the way their parents lived and grew old. Most of the older adults I talk to, of various ages, don’t perceive themselves as old.”
The line defining the elderly is traditionally drawn at 65. Koren says that beyond that there are different population segments. “When we talk about young people, for purposes of marketing for example, we carry out very precise segmentation. It’s clear that young people before their army service and young people after their army service are different groups with different needs,” he says.
“This is also true when we’re talking about older adults. There are completely different sets of needs for different groups within this population. What is called [in Hebrew] ‘the third age’ is actually three different age groups, but there’s a tendency to talk about them in a generalized way. From a marketing perspective this is a big mistake. From a social perspective it’s an expression of a stigma, of ageism.”
Doron says “the third age” is a very heterogenous group. “You encounter multigenerational families – people who are in a second or third relationship, a new family and children at 60 to 65. The relations between parents and children are changing. There are people in their 70s who are taking care of parents, and parents in their 80s who are taking care of their children who are 50 or 60.”
An example of this is a woman in her late 60s who visits her 90-plus mother every day. The daughter refuses to abandon her parent to loneliness and alienation even during a coronavirus lockdown – and the daughter is being harshly criticized by members of her family. They’re worried about the daughter, who is also in a high-risk group because of her age – someone to whom the statement “68 is the new 55” applied until a few weeks ago, who with the stroke of a virus has become an old person needing protection.
Like many other phenomena deriving from a stigma, ageism is prevalent in all social classes and often there are no evil intentions or a worldview behind it. Often a disparaging attitude toward old people stems from a habit of thought that links advanced age to limitations that don’t necessarily characterize a given person.
Years ago, I accompanied my father, who was hospitalized in an internal medicine department. He received excellent care and when he was beginning to recover, the head of the department came into his room. The professor, a usually courteous person, addressed me directly to talk about rehabilitation. My father, who was alert, clear-headed and wise, was right there in the room.
I asked the professor to speak directly with my father, so he did. But when the genial doctor conversed with my father, the style of his speech changed. He spoke slowly and used simple words and a didactic tone as if his interlocutor were a person who had a hard time understanding.
No more disappearing
Prof. Emeritus Haim Hazan of Tel Aviv University’s Sociology and Anthropology Department says the stereotypes about aging are no longer accurate. “Today it’s possible to live to an advanced age, in good health and with a high level of functioning, but there isn’t synchronization between functioning and role. In the past people would grow old and disappear,” he says.
“Now they remain and their physical and psychological condition is good but they don’t have a social role. The definition of old age was to a large extent an identity emptied of roles. As has been stated in many books – above all Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ – the culture lags behind technology. It doesn’t have answers to new situations and it’s not necessarily interested in dealing with answers, so as not to break itself apart,” Hazan adds.
“Old age was kind of a social fence, an invisible wall between life and death. In a certain sense, it provided protection against the presence of death in our world. After all, it’s mostly old people who die, and before that, they fade away and disappear. This protects the others a bit from the fear of death.”
At the futuristic end of the age revolution are changes in the perception of bodily aging and the striving for immortality, for eternal life. “We live in a world that sanctifies the body, and we’re approaching a world where, with the help of genetic engineering, we’ll have the possibility to order any physical characteristic we want,” Hazan says.
“In a world like that there will no longer be any importance to the body. Age and the dramatic bodily changes it entails will also perhaps cease to be significant. It’s hard to imagine what the nature of aging will be in the future, when the body is no longer the main arena of its existence,” he adds.
“Beyond that, the futurist Ray Kurzweil and others are advancing thinking about ‘singularity,’ the point at which it will be possible to preserve the mind – that is, eternal life, an existence in which death is a completely different experience.”
Doron shrugs. “Technology can replace a lot of things and maybe it will also replace the brain in a download,” he says. “This doesn’t interest me. I think there’s something beautiful in the finality of life. I don’t want to live in a world where people live forever.”
At the moment, the world looks far from realizing the vision of Kurzweil and his disciples. And the coronavirus pandemic looks like a slap in the face to the idea of immortality. Still, life expectancy is steadily increasing, especially in the wealthy and developed world. It will continue to increase, and after the pandemic, it will increase the number of challenging issues brought about by the age revolution.
How do we fill with content and meaning those extra years after retirement? Is it right and necessary to increase people’s working years – for emotional as well as economic reasons?
How does the decision to continue working even at age 70 and above affect younger people? How do we conduct family life in a multigenerational format? How do we live with the paradox that as life expectancy increases and the proportion of older people grows, the cult of youth and the pressure to look young still prevail?
How does the expectation of a longer life reflect on the middle generation – people 40 to 60? Is it also evident in young people’s decision-making? Does it affect their tendency toward professional and interpersonal commitment?
Some of these questions will be examined in the coming articles in this series.