What to do with those extra years of life

Virginia Postrel addresses how American society can move beyond seeing age 65 or retirement as the end of a career or life (“Floridization”):

It’s to change the pictures in our heads, to give up the images that “Floridization” evokes, as either a warning or an implicit ideal. People do not automatically become crotchety, backward-looking, and idle when they reach their 60s.

But changing that picture means exchanging today’s architectural metaphor, “building a career,” for another one: adaptive reuse. This is the human-capital equivalent of turning industrial lofts into apartments, factories into medical schools, power plants into art museums, or saw mills into shopping centers. Your original career may be economically obsolete, or you may just want a change, but your knowledge and experience still have their charms. Instead of equating success with a steady progression of better-paying jobs, each related to the previous one, this model emphasizes taking on new challenges and making new contributions, even if that means going back to school, taking a pay cut, or starting as a trainee when you’re middle-aged.

One version of this idea is the “encore career” advocated by Marc Freedman, who has made one of the most prominent attempts to think what how longer, healthier lives should mean for Americans’ careers.

This is an important topic to be discussing with longer life spans, limited funds for government retirement programs, and economic times that may require citizens to work to an older age. Those with more years have plenty to contribute to society and to simply write them off as past their time is foolish: it is not good for these individuals, their families and communities, and society.

Implicit in this discussion is an American emphasis on youth. Postrel cites one journalist who seems to suggest that youth equals progress and that being older automatically leads to loneliness. This may only appear to be the case because our society doesn’t leave much productive space for those who have retired. As I recently discussed, being older can lead to increased happiness and wisdom, two traits out society could use.

h/t Instapundit

Older age = more wisdom, happiness

In a youth-oriented culture like that of the United States, growing older may not appear appealing to many. But recent research suggests that growing older leads to more wisdom and increased levels of happiness:

Contrary to largely gloomy cultural perceptions, growing old brings some benefits, notably emotional and cognitive stability. Laura Carstensen, a Stanford social psychologist, calls this the “well-being paradox.” Although adults older than 65 face challenges to body and brain, the 70s and 80s also bring an abundance of social and emotional knowledge, qualities scientists are beginning to define as wisdom. As Carstensen and another social psychologist, Fredda Blanchard-Fields of the Georgia Institute of Technology, have shown, adults gain a toolbox of social and emotional instincts as they age. According to Blanchard-Fields, seniors acquire a feel, an enhanced sense of knowing right from wrong, and therefore a way to make sound life decisions.

That may help explain the finding that old age correlates with happiness. A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found a U-shaped relationship between happiness and age: Adults were happiest in youth and again in their 70s and early 80s, and least happy in middle age. A 2007 University of Chicago study similarly concluded that rates of happiness — “the degree to which a person evaluates the overall quality of his present life positively” — crept upward from age 65 to 85 and beyond, in both sexes.

These are interesting findings. Now how could American culture go about showing and sharing these benefits of growing old? Wisdom, in particular, might be a challenge to portray in commercial advertisements.

Also, there is an interesting discussion in the article about how to define and measure “wisdom.”