We seem to have lost the essence of the human project centered on the generative impulse to pass on life's lessons to future generations. As Harvard Medical School scholar George Vaillant argues, "Biology flows downhill." It is human nature to focus on the well-being of future generations. That's part of true maturity, of accepting limits. We're also endangering the parallel impulse, what might be called the American project, the responsibility to make things better for future generations. That has always been the immigrant dream for America. It is a cornerstone of the American Dream, the belief that one's children should have it better than we do.
See also: Interview with author Marc Freedman.
More recently, these concerns have reached a new urgency. One poll by AARP found that Americans in the second half of life worry that they will be the first generation in American history to leave things worse off for the next generation. Another poll shows that boomers in particular hold this view. Beyond surveys, this theme has become a thread in commencement addresses.
One Wall Street Journal headline from 2009 highlights the phenomenon: "Boomers to This Year's Grads: We Are Really, Really Sorry ..."
Those in the encore years constitute our great national repository of generativity, a renewable resource of caring for the future. This group is poised to answer [Erik] Erikson's challenge. For some time, we've thwarted the expression of this impulse, sending people in their 60s, 70s, and beyond — arguably our generative heartland — to age-segregated leisure villages, consigning them to live out a pale approximation of a second childhood, free from the prospect of paying school taxes or being disturbed by the patter of little feet.
The new stage is about putting that notion of a second childhood aside. It's about being a grown-up, about breaking once and for all our addiction to youth. Instead of succumbing to fantasies of an endless childhood, we need to embrace our stage and the generative impulse that's such an important part of real maturity. Instead of trying to be younger than we are, we need to accept our age and our stage and invest in those who truly are young — who represent the future. Rather than trying to be them, we need to be there for them, to support their development and well-being so that they can carry the dream forward.
Life stages are not just social construction projects; they are social reflection projects. The notion of adolescence was created not just to solve a problem but also to reflect our identity — the identity of a youthful nation and all the hopes and the dreams that went with that conception. Today we have to stop pretending, or wishing, we're the same country we were in 1904 when the 60-year-old G. Stanley Hall invented the category of adolescence.
We're a nation that will soon have more older people than younger ones — indeed, part of a developed world that is expected by 2050 to have twice as many people over 60 as under 15. Let's face it: We're rapidly on the way to becoming an older nation, like it or not. We can spend our time lamenting that we're no longer what we once were demographically. Or we can truly accept the responsibility that comes with being in the Encore Stage, which is most of all the generative mantle.
From the Book: The Big Shift by Marc Freedman. Excerpted by arrangement with Public Affairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.