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Why 65 isn’t “old” anymore

WOMAN SMILING
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60 may not be the new 50, but maybe it's time to rethink our life-stage categories ...

There are some pretty sweet benefits to turning 65 these days — you can go on Medicare and get free physicals, start collecting on your retirement, apply for Social Security, and enjoy discounts on everything from travel to gym memberships. In wealthier societies, 65 is considered the beginning of old age, “retirement,” the magic number when life settles down and the last chapter of life sets in.

But what exactly is “old age”? And could it be time to re-think it?

According to SeniorLiving.org, in 1900 the average life expectancy for white males in the US was 47 [for black males it was 33] and for females it was 49 [for black females it was 34]. By the year 2000, life expectancy for white men had risen to 75 [68 for black men] and for white women it was 80 [75 for black women.] Experts say life expectancy will only continue to increase.

Life stages are social constructs and wealthier nations have been operating with a particular model for a long time, as this article originally published in the Economist points out:

Words like “old” and “retired” signal to policymakers, as well as to old people themselves, how they ought to behave and be treated by governments, businesses and employers. In a three-stage model of life’s cycle, children learn, adults work and old people rest. As a result, most institutions still treat 65 as a cut-off point for social and economic usefulness.

No one is ever “useless,” of course, not matter how old they are. Describing senior adults this way is a failure to recognize their humanity, and gifts and value they bring to society.

But as the article points out, aging is gradual and people experience it differently. We are living longer now and many factors are changing how we age and how we work — advances in medicine, greater awareness of health and wellness, more people gaining higher education, later marriage and later child-bearing, just to name a few. We change careers and jobs many times over the course of our lives now and we don’t always do things in the same order as previous generations. In your 60s, you may be just as likely these days to launch a new career or take up running as you are to move into a seniors’ center. Given all this and the variation in how we experience our “golden years,” it’s probably time to revisit the 3-stage model we’ve been working with.

Of course, there are numerous ways to categorize developmental stages, and psychologists have proposed many models, such as Erik Eriksons’s stages of human development. But to keep it simple, we could take seriously the Economists suggestion to start acknowledging a new stage between “adulthood” and “old age.” We could consider the 60-to-80 age range to be marked by — among other things — a focus on meaning, creativity, self-determination, and slowing down [in the best of ways].

There’s also something else to consider: Today’s younger adults may not, at least in the United States, have Social Security and Medicare when they turn 65. And while more of them than ever will have master’s degrees, they may not have the robust retirement accounts their parents did. This means their 60s and 70s may look quite different than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

So rather than view 65 as marking the beginning of “old age,” maybe we should start treating it as another stage of dynamic adulthood, one with even greater variation and possibility than younger adulthood. We might call it “Senior Adulthood” or “The Regenerative Stage,” or even the “Hey, I’m Not Really Old Quite Yet” phase.

And while we’re at it, I vote for changing the term “old age” to “elder-hood.” It has a much lovelier ring to it.

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