When Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, a 73-year-old retired high school principal from California, founded AARP in 1958, a new life stage called "retirement" was emerging in America.
As the country's perception of aging shifted from a dreaded period of decline to one of dignity, individual lives and social expectations were fundamentally transformed. New programs and laws such as Medicare and the Older Americans Act created a new life experience for millions of older Americans. Thriving new industries, such as leisure travel, emerged that catered to the needs, interests and pocketbooks of this first-ever generation of genuine retirees.
A leisured retirement became the reward for a life well spent. Moreover, the sooner you got there, the better. To be able to retire was the ultimate symbol of success — and for many people, it still is.
Today, America is in the midst of a second aging revolution as many of the children of that first-ever retirement generation — boomers — hold new and very different aspirations. They are realizing that their life experience has tremendous value. While many aspire to retire from work, they have no desire to retire from life.
Given the gifts of longer life, better health, greater engagement and more possibilities, they see their traditional retirement years as less about leisure and more about freedom — freedom to pursue interests and hobbies, freedom to spend time with family, freedom to finally become the person they always wanted to be.
The first aging revolution was about freedom from work. The second one is about freedom to do something different. Instead of accepting decline, it celebrates discovery — a Life Reimagined.
Just as the first aging revolution brought society a new life stage called retirement, this second aging revolution brings with it a new life stage we at AARP call the Age of Possibilities.
Boomers created the Age of Possibilities because they reject the notion that their possibilities are shrinking as they get older. They see their 50-plus years as a chance to grow in new and rewarding ways, to unleash their passions, to live the American dream, to make the world a better place.
The second aging revolution reflects the spirit of a generation that has lived life on its own terms and that is now determined to keep doing so, but is challenged to find a way forward.
As AARP members, we are the pioneers of the second aging revolution. We are leading the way.
The second aging revolution is about growing more whole, not just growing older. And ultimately, it's about growing more wise, more fulfilled and more connected to each other — creating a society where all people age with independence, dignity and purpose.
This was Dr. Andrus' vision when she started AARP 56 years ago, and it's still our vision today. The goal, after all, is not just to add more years to our lives but to add more life to our years.
This column is adapted from a chapter A. Barry Rand wrote for The Upside of Aging: How Long Life Is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy and Purpose.
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