February 2, 2010, New York Times, The Geezers’ Crusade, by David Brooks.
We like to think that in days gone by, the young venerated the elderly. But that wasn’t always so. In “As You Like It,” Shakespeare’s morose character, Jaques, calls old age “second childishness and mere oblivion.” Walt Whitman hoped that the tedium and pettiness of his senior years would not infect his poetry.
Developmental psychologists, when they treated old age at all, often regarded it as a period of withdrawal. The elderly slowly separate themselves from the world. They cannot be expected to achieve new transformations. “About the age of fifty,” Freud wrote, “the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.”
Well, that was wrong. Over the past few years, researchers have found that the brain is capable of creating new connections and even new neurons all through life. While some mental processes like working memory and the ability to quickly solve math problems clearly deteriorate, others do not. Older people retain their ability to remember emotionally nuanced events. They are able to integrate memories from their left and right hemispheres. Their brains reorganize to help compensate for the effects of aging.
A series of longitudinal studies, begun decades ago, are producing a rosier portrait of life after retirement. These studies don’t portray old age as surrender or even serenity. They portray it as a period of development and they’re not even talking about über-oldsters jumping out of airplanes.
People are most unhappy in middle age and report being happier as they get older. This could be because as people age they pay less attention to negative emotional stimuli, according to a study by the psychologists Mara Mather, Turhan Canli and others.
Gender roles begin to merge. Many women get more assertive while many men get more emotionally attuned. Personalities often become more vivid as people become more of what they already are. Norma Haan of the University of California, Berkeley, and others conducted a 50-year follow-up of people who had been studied while young and concluded that the subjects had become more outgoing, self-confident and warm with age.
The research paints a comforting picture. And the nicest part is that virtue is rewarded. One of the keys to healthy aging is what George Vaillant of Harvard calls “generativity” providing for future generations. Seniors who perform service for the young have more positive lives and better marriages than those who don’t. As Vaillant writes in his book “Aging Well,” “Biology flows downhill.” We are naturally inclined to serve those who come after and thrive when performing that role.
The odd thing is that when you turn to political life, we are living in an age of reverse-generativity. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.
Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control.
Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of G.D.P. By 2019, it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities. Already, pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.
In the private sphere, in other words, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades to come. In the public sphere, they take it away.
I used to think that political leaders could avert fiscal suicide. But it’s now clear change will not be led from Washington. On the other hand, over the past couple of years we’ve seen the power of spontaneous social movements: first the movement that formed behind Barack Obama, and now, equally large, the Tea Party movement.
Spontaneous social movements can make the unthinkable thinkable, and they can do it quickly. It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power. Only the old can lead a generativity revolution millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.
It may seem unrealistic to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. But in the private sphere, you see it every day. Old people now have the time, the energy and, with the Internet, the tools to organize.
The elderly. They are our future.
Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company