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The Author Speaks

Seizing Your Future

Interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom


— Courtesy of Joanna Eldredge Morrisey/Knopf Publicity

Q. The Jane Fonda interview is fascinating, but don't her wealth and celebrity make her atypical?

A. Everybody's life is atypical. What her wealth gives her is choices, but it doesn't tell her how to make those choices. When I wrote Composing a Life, one of the valid comments people made was that none of the women had had to deal with extreme poverty or physical disability. What I was trying to study was the choices that women were making when they had the possibility of making choices. Resources make a difference, but you still have to figure out, "What am I going to do with my money? What am I going to do with my fame? How am I going to invest my time and my passion?"

Q. For Fonda and others, Adulthood II seems to be a time of renewed spirituality.

A. My sense is that we are so busy in our adult years that people don't have time for reflection. Wisdom comes from reflecting on experience. Reflection on what one cares about, on what gives meaning to life, leads many people in the direction of very different forms of spirituality.

Q. What is the most important conclusion you drew from the interviews?

A. All of the people I spoke to had grown and deepened by living these extra years. And by the way they engaged with other people and with the society, they became more deeply human.

Q. What surprised you?

A. I hadn't really thought through the fact that the learning that takes place in people's lives is very often learning of an ethical kind. It's a learning of compassion, of caring for other people, of taking responsibility.

Q. What societal changes would you like to see to enhance the extended life cycle?

A. I would like to see more changes that would encourage and support the contribution that people can make to society in Adulthood II. First of all, it's good for our health to be engaged and busy and making a contribution. It is good for society to have the benefit of the experience and reflection of people in Adulthood II.

Q. What are some of the challenges involved?

A. There are structural problems that need to be solved. We as a society, since the feminist movement, have suffered a deficit of volunteerism. What I would hope to see is a rethinking of the value of work in people's lives. We have inherited the notion of work as a burden, as a curse. What needs to happen is a labor movement that emphasizes issues around the meaningfulness of work.

Q. What else?

A. We need to rethink education. With No Child Left Behind [a federal law enacted in 2001], we're saying there's a certain minimum that everyone has to know, and we're willing to make acquiring that minimum fairly unpleasant. A good education turns out lifelong learners. If you look at an infant or toddler, what you see is a creature who's programmed to learn and gets a kick out of it all the time. And then we discourage that.

Q. You stress the importance of interdependence. How has American individualism adversely affected our life choices and social arrangements?

A. First of all, the issue of sustainability: Everyone has to have his own car, his own big house, his own lawn mower. This ideal of independence is leading people to regard any kind of communal living, whether with family or in a community where people look out for each other, as undesirable. I think one of the reasons that being involved in volunteer work is helpful for older people is they're more willing to accept help at a later stage when they need it.

Q. What advice would you give readers entering Adulthood II?

A. People come upon retirement without a very good plan for what they're going to do next. They think that what they're going to do is relax, without realizing that full-time recreation isn't going to be satisfying to them. So you really need a time to say, "What is fundamental to me, and how can I have that in the years ahead?"

Q. Final thoughts?

A. I've been concerned that we are making decisions of great significance for the future of the whole planet for short-term reasons. We have to engage older adults who have a lot of life experience in reaching those decisions. The trouble is, politicians seem to think that older adults are only interested in their own entitlements. AARP has done a heroic job working toward legislation and policies whose effect is to give older adults the freedom and security to speak up and make the contributions to society that we need them to make. The most critical contribution we can make is to become advocates for the future. One way of thinking about that is, "What kind of world will our grandchildren live in?" It's a different kind of activism.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor for Columbia Journalism Review who is facing Adulthood II.

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