I turned 69 on Monday, and it’s no accident that I’ve just returned from the Sixth Annual Positive Aging Conference, sponsored by the prestigious Fielding Graduate University of Santa Barbara, California, and I’m now attending the highly regarded Boomer Summit, presented by Mary Furlong & Associates, preceding the sponsoring American Society on Aging’s annual conference.
As a professional futurist and transformational gerontologist, I’ve been on the age beat for decades. The field chose me long before I realized it. It’s been a long deep dive and a challenging open-ended solo journey, applying foresight to our shifting demographics as we traverse discontinuous changing times. All the while, I’ve been honing an evolving aspirational view of the future, which dovetails positive futures with positive aging (aka conscious aging).
Born on the cusp of being a true Baby Boomer, I’ve had a unique vantage point as an observer and a facilitator of the impact the Boomer generation has had on our changing reality as they moved past 30 on their way into their 60s. My destiny has been to stand on the shoulders of and along with others in spreading the truth about our future and sounding the call for planning strategically to meet the challenges and needs of this enormous demographic group and the echo effects on our emerging intergenerational workplace, our future economies, our very way of life, and the fate of our planet. Now these conferences are bringing us out of our research isolation, creating new tribes of professionals wanting to change the conversation on aging and the future.
A Positive Aging (R)evolution
Back in the early nineties, the Omega Institute convened two of the first conferences on conscious aging. Unfortunately, the ingrained model of aging as a disease prevailed. It wasn’t until 2007 that the progressive Fielding Graduate University, an innovator in adult learning and graduate education, courageously took on the charge to dismantle this outmoded view in exchange for one of hope and possibility.
This year’s conference theme, Life Re-imagined: New Approaches to Positive Aging, resonates with the question I hear over and over again as I traverse the country: “Who am I if I’m no longer young? What’s next?” The question isn’t new, but the intensity and universality are ramping up.
I joined my colleagues as both a roving journalist/blogger and as an author/presenter, sharing Visionaries Have Wrinkles: How to Serve the Generation of Women Who Are Changing the World . . . Again! What a kick this was for me to introduce my newest work on “aspirational aging” for the Age of Greatness that we are entering and to explore our never-before-imagined Ageless Futures with an audience of professionals in the field of aging.
The conference rocked from the engaging opening by Wendy Lustbader, MSW, author of The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, who reminded us that “Elders dare to enter the deeper realms. . . . The finest audacity is at the end of life,” to an eye-opening exploration of Dr. Brian De Vries’ground-breaking research on the aging experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults. Then the renowned spiritual teacher we grew up with, Ram Dass, spoke to us via Skype, taking us to a higher realm in sharing his current views on aging, dying, and death: “I’m finding aging very precious. I have no fear of death. Now I have insight to radiate out to the culture.”
Bringing us back down to earth, Andrea Gallagher introduced us to the work of the Life Planning Network. In between plenary sessions, the best of the field’s pioneers and newbie innovators conversed about new approaches to positive aging. Through it all, my professor and mentor from my post-master’s studies and my teaching at the renowned pioneering Brookdale Center on Aging, Harry (Rick) Moody, PhD, was a stellar master of ceremonies, no doubt drawing from his experiences as a professor, lifelong teacher, prolific author, and director of academic affairs for AARP.
It all came together with the closing plenary by James Birren, a six-decade pioneer in gerontology, who was honored with Fielding’s Creative Longevity and Wisdom Award. He sent us on our way with the wisdom to “Always ask questions without answers.” His parting question to us: “What is your life’s metaphor?”
Donning my journalist hat while scanning as a futurist, I kept asking, what is jumping out at me? What are the gaps, what new aha’s are showing up, what’s not being addressed?
Flashing in neon was the paucity of young people in attendance. Not one Millennial (those in their 20s and early 30s), and only a minority of Gen X’ers (mid- to late 30s and 40s, approaching early 50s). How could this be? Quickly surveying the academics present, I heard confirmation that kids are just not enrolling in new gerontology programs.
Why are so few entering the field of aging or other fields serving the enormous Boomer generation?
Are they turning away in disgust and disillusionment because of media fear mongering? The media cause célèbre seems to be to scapegoat all Boomers as the Me generation, responsible for toppling our economy, gouging our kids’ future with our entitlements, and leaving our youth with a planet raped by our rampant consumerism.
With jobs at a premium and careers derailed, have we so brainwashed our citizenry with the disease model of aging that entering the aging field conjures up only the worst possible images of cleaning bed pans and tending to the most infirm among us?
Or is our long-running romance and glamorization of youth keeping us all in denial about the great potential of this new age we are in and moving through?
Perhaps our current reality is just too much to grok, and oh so scary, causing our youth to think, why bother? If we really listen to them, we’ll hear the not-unfounded belief that we are heading into total planetary destruction, with our old institutions and infrastructure crumbling before our eyes, and our once-revered democracy broken. Can we blame them for their obsession with clicking on and partying it out in this NOW reality?
Yet we need each other now more than ever. A survey just released in February showed that 26% of Boomers are financially supporting their children or have them living at home, and more than 20% are supporting aging parents. We are in this together.
Rewriting Our Story
Yes, those of us leaving our 50s and entering our 60s and 70s did put us all in this current tragic reality. We were once an awesome generation with great vision and verve, setting out on what seemed an impossible mission. Boomers were dealt a Joker Card, the unexpected reversal of fortunes, and we toppled from our towers of success, ending up exhausted and frozen in horror, wondering how this could happen to us. Why now, when we thought we’d be coasting?
Amid the breakdowns all around us, most leading-edge Boomers are in shock at having aged. If we are really honest with ourselves and each other, we are living in collective grief and mourning for what used to be. Having been brought to our knees by the Great Recession, toppled from our awesomeness, and stuck in global ossification, we are stunned to find that we are not invincible, that we are not the masters of our universe. Compounding our tragic fall, too many of us are still searching for the eternal fountain of youth, which demands that we stay in denial, unwilling to face the realities of our times and our aging process.
As a generation and a society, we are pooped out, burned, and shattered, but I assure you we do not have to stay stuck in this tragic system collapse, clinging to what we know because it’s familiar, afraid to break out of the box into the light of something new, something as yet un-birthed.
Blame-placing and denial aren’t what we need right now. As in James Birren’s parting query, we all need to ask, what story are we in? Then we can rewrite the ending, or at least come up with alternative scenarios (even aspirational aging futures) and take actions informed by what is so, actions fueled by a new wisdom.
As my dear friend and eco-futurist colleague Maria Katzenbach reminds me, the best of drama and storytelling always has a tragic reversal, followed by a turning point or a rewrite of the ending. As a science educator, my metaphors come from quantum physics and nature, which have some parallels to tragedy and comedy. I liken our current shakedown to a dissipative structure, which can shake into oblivion or enter a new level of evolution. We can and must choose evolution, which means choosing creative destruction and the resulting radical reinvention required. It’s either rebirth a reimagined future or it’s over and out. I know what I’m choosing. What about you? Your business? The folks who keep you in business?
As this year’s conference theme, life re-imagined, alluded to, re-imagination precedes sustainable reinvention. This is what is called for now, ’cause none of us has ever been here before. The challenge of our times is to reach across generations collaboratively to re-determine what is the greatest possible future we want to re-imagine—and then occupy it! Continuously, over and over again, until it’s now!
Our Portal to a Greater Future
This conference brought together a mixture of the creative arts as a pathway to self-discovery and presentations grounded in scientific research. Perhaps planned, this mix of creative inner seeking and evidence-based action is certainly a most appropriate metaphor for what is required to create our future anew as well as what comes with the wisdom of aging. The gifts of age will bring back our lost awe as we unleash our new “old age”—one of greatness, individually and collectively. As Ram Dass exemplified, as we move into our later years, we too integrate the linear and the nonlinear, radiating out true greatness to our culture.
I believe that Boomer aging is the portal to a new future for humanity and the planet. It is our generational reason for being here at this time. It is our fate and destiny and that of our kids. In fact, recent studies show that Boomers are the most entrepreneurial, the most willing to take risks, of any other generation. Our youth was our dress rehearsal. Now we must return anew to our purpose and vision for the future. For we are the visionaries we’ve been waiting for. We get another chance to be awesome! Who better than us to take the lead as visionaries with wrinkles, to give hope to our kids? They need us and we need them. Together we can rewrite the impending ending and craft alternative futures that work for all of us.
Featured image by Garry Knight.