This essay is adapted from the book Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age
AS MY HUSBAND, Frank, and I entered the dining room of a Ritz-Carlton hotel in Virginia, I was feeling impatient, even a little bit on edge. We were there to celebrate my birthday — and not just any birthday, my 50th birthday. I had left all of the arrangements to Frank, something I would normally never do. The maître d' led us through the dining room to a small table in the back. There had been a mix-up in our reservation, he said, apologizing as he seated us near the entrance to the kitchen. This is just great, I thought to myself. My husband brings me to this elegant hotel to celebrate my birthday, and we're going to have to put up with all the banging from the kitchen. A few minutes later, the maître d' returned and said he had made a mistake and was moving us to a separate room. Reluctantly, I got up, and we followed him back through the restaurant into a different room where, much to my surprise, I was greeted by about 30 of my dearest friends and colleagues, wishing me a happy birthday. My daughter, Nicole, was there, and Frank had even arranged for our son, Christian, to come home from college to attend the celebration.
We had a wonderful time. I talked to my family, my friends, my colleagues from the Library of Congress, where I was the chief operating officer. They were all so proud of themselves for keeping the secret from me. Life doesn't get much better than this, I thought. Then, I started opening my birthday cards:
"Happy 50th — You're now officially over the hill!"
"Don't think of it as getting old; think of it as the 32nd anniversary of your 18th birthday."
"You're not losing it — you're just not using it as often."
"Relax! Turning 50 doesn't mean you're an old geezer.… It means you're a young geezer!"
At first, I accepted these joke cards as part of the ritual of turning 50. That's what we do when people reach that milestone: We make fun of their age, call them old. It's all done in a spirit of fun — isn't it? But as I thought more about the cards' messages, I began to see a disconnect, and, frankly, it bothered me. I had been feeling really good about my birthday and about where I was in life. And then I read those cards. They were meant to be humorous, but at the same time, they tried to make me feel over the hill, which was not the way I felt at all. I wasn't over the hill, I was on top of the mountain, and I liked being there. In fact, I was already beginning to think about what mountain I might climb next. And I knew I wasn't the only one who felt like that.
Among the people who were in that room celebrating with me were many who had long ago passed their 50th birthdays and who were still finding new mountains to climb.
I decided then and there that I didn't want to be defined by my age, any more than I wanted to be defined by race, sex or income. And, honestly, I've grown a little tired of other people defining me that way. I refuse to allow outdated expectations of what people my age should do determine what I am going to do. Instead of apologizing for my age — or denying it — I decided to embrace it and make the most of it. Little did I know that I would soon be leaving the Library of Congress to join AARP, where I'd have an opportunity to help others do the same thing.
I'll be the first to admit, deciding to embrace my age was not easy. The negative stereotypes of aging are so ingrained in our psyches, they are difficult to overcome. So, most of us don't even try. We either just accept it and perpetuate the negative image, or, as is increasingly common, we just deny we are aging and fight it with all we've got. But I'll also admit it was very satisfying.
Two years later, when I joined the staff of AARP Foundation, I was surprised by how many people could not understand why I would leave a job I loved to start a totally different career in a totally different field. For me, it was the next chapter in my well-established five-year planning cycle. I had always said I wanted to run a nonprofit. But never in my wildest imagination did I think that heading up AARP Foundation would lead to my current job as the CEO of AARP, the largest nonprofit in the world. When I was deciding whether to make the leap to the Foundation, my age never entered my mind — except that I thought I might not be old enough for AARP.
AGING IS ONE of life's great contradictions. It's everyone's dream to live to a ripe old age, but many people fear growing older. Our ability to live longer, healthier, more productive lives is one of mankind's greatest accomplishments, but we often see aging as more of a problem than an accomplishment. Our culture worships the fantasies of youth, yet we are being driven more and more by the realities of age.
That's why, since becoming AARP's CEO in September 2014, I've been on a mission to "disrupt" aging. Much in the way that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have disrupted whole industries — creating an Uber to upend the taxicab business, say, or an Airbnb to challenge the hotels — I want to disrupt the way we age in America. I want to demolish our assumptions about getting older and help people understand that reaching 50, 60, 70 or beyond is not really about aging. It's about living.
We've all seen those ads on TV and in magazines: "50 is the new 30," or "60 is the new 40." While that may sound like a nice sentiment, as someone over 50, I don't agree with it at all. Fifty is the new 50 … and I, for one, like the looks of it. We're not becoming younger as we get older. We're redefining what it means to be our age. I don't want to be 30 again, do you? Sure, I may sometimes wish I could look like I'm 30 and feel like I'm 30 — but I've benefited from the experiences and wisdom the years since then have brought me. I am a more purposeful person because of my age.
People 50 and older today face different challenges and have different goals than people in their 30s and 40s. We see the world through a lens shaped by life's ups and downs, by the wisdom gained from those experiences and by the comfort that comes from having a better understanding of who we are as individuals. We like where we are, and we're looking forward to the years ahead. We are workers. We are caregivers — whether as adult children caring for older parents, as parents taking care of children, as grandparents taking care of grandkids or as some combination of all of these. We are volunteers and philanthropists. We are leaders in our communities, supporters of our houses of worship, helping hands to our neighbors and friends. We are a generation of makers and doers who want to continue exploring our possibilities. We seek out opportunities and grab hold of them when we find them.
In short, people 50 and older are still living in ways that reflect the attitudes, activism and aspirations of the boomer generation. That optimism — that desire to live life on our own terms, to make a difference, to change the world — is very real. It confirms my belief that no one's possibilities should be limited by their age. Experience has value.
But it's true that people over 50 face real challenges every day. Many struggle to meet their most basic needs — health care, financial security, caring for themselves and their families. They don't want to be defined or defeated by these challenges. They want to tackle them and get back into a position to take advantage of opportunities. We need to disrupt aging so we can help such people confront their challenges and embrace their opportunities to the fullest extent possible. That requires changing the conversation in this country so we embrace aging as something to look forward to — not something to fear.
LAST YEAR, AARP joined with six other prominent aging organizations to study people's attitudes about aging. In a report called "Gauging Aging," this consortium found that the American public largely sees aging as a process of deterioration, dependency, reduced potential, family dispersal and digital incompetence. "These deep and negative shared understandings make the process of aging something to be dreaded and fought against, rather than embraced as a process that brings new opportunities and challenges," the report states. This is important, because the negative stories we tell ourselves and one another about aging lead to negative behaviors that, in turn, create a negative reality of aging. The view of aging as decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But the opposite would also be true. If we can change the conversation in this country about what it means to get older, we can change the reality. And change is long overdue.
I believe the three most important areas where action is needed, for individuals and in our society, are health, wealth and self.
In our health care, we need to begin to focus on physical and mental fitness instead of decline. We must work on preventing disease and improving well-being instead of just treating ailments. And we need to empower people to become active partners in their health care, instead of passive patients.
As for wealth, it doesn't mean becoming richer than you ever thought possible. It does mean having financial resilience to not outlive your money. An active, engaged, employed older population has the potential to be more of an economic boon to society than a drain on it. Workers over 50 can be a key driver of economic growth and innovation. Corporations, entrepreneurs and small businesses are already beginning to view the aging population as an opportunity—a growing market for goods and services, a pool of untapped talent and resources, and a driving force behind economic and social creativity.
Finally, we must change the way we view ourselves. We must reject the common notion that aging equals failing and instead look at aging as a process of continuous growth. Many older people feel cast aside. It's important to help them develop a sense of purpose and a positive self-image. The goal is to gain confidence in navigating life transitions—and see yourself as an integral part of society—instead of being isolated from society.
We who are over 50 can't do this alone. We have to bring all parts of society with us. There is a public role for government at all levels, a private role for businesses and organizations, and a personal role and responsibility for each of us, no matter what our age.
Fortunately, the movement to disrupt aging has already begun. As the boomers enter their 50s and 60s, they are upending age-based expectations every day, just as they have done in every other phase of their lives. Millennials are also challenging expectations, by demanding work-life balance in their jobs and showing us all the benefits of a shared economic model.
We live in a very exciting time. Most people turning 50 today can expect to live another 30-plus years. That's more time than they spent in childhood and adolescence and, for many, it's more time than they'll spend working. I believe we can create a society where all people can grow older knowing they'll have access to the care, information and services they need to lead healthy lives with independence and dignity, where they'll have the financial resources and opportunities to match their longer life expectancy, and where they'll be seen as an integral and inspirational asset to society.
Maya Angelou once said that at 50, each of us becomes the person we always wanted to be. I think that's true. I believe age and experience can expand the possibilities in life for every member of society.
When we disrupt aging and embrace it as a part of life to look forward to, we can begin to discover the real possibilities for living the life of the person we've always wanted to be. I hope you will join me on this journey.
Jo Ann Jenkins is the chief executive officer of AARP.
This essay is adapted from Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age, to be published April 5. To preorder, go to disruptagingbook.org
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