The future is entirely foreseeable. What is unpredictable is how we will respond.
I once was sitting in a restaurant with Rabbi Zalman Schachter, talking about the search for meaning in old age. Suddenly Reb Zalman turned to me and said, “You know, this search for meaning comes down to a simple question: Are you saved?”
Hearing this, I was puzzled, and I thought, well, he is a clergyman. “Is this perhaps a theological reference?” I asked. “No,” said Reb Zalman, “I don’t mean it in a theological sense but in a computer sense. Are you saved? Have you downloaded your life experience for coming generations? Have you started doing your legacy work?”
Zalman’s challenge raises the question: What kind of world will we be leaving to our children and grandchildren? What is our collective legacy of our time on this earth? (See Schachter, 1997.)
Robert Butler, when he was past 80, conjectured about what will happen “when the Boomers reach Golden Pond” (Butler, 1984). If current trends continue, the pond will be polluted, and fresh water will be running out. A society with unprecedented numbers of older people will be a society facing limits in the environment. How will we respond to these limits? With despair and evasion (“After me, the deluge”), or by new energies of idealism in behalf of future generations?
What about those Boomers on Golden Pond? The demographic pattern itself is predictable. Boomers are reaching the next age from 2010 to 2030—a time when the human species will need to make enormous changes in response to global warming, species extinction, and other environmental threats. This future—population aging with environmental challenge—is entirely foreseeable. What is unpredictable is how Boomers will respond to the challenge.
The historian Arnold Toynbee argued that the rise and fall of civilizations reflects a rhythm of challenge and response. We do not choose the circumstance in which we find ourselves.
But Viktor Frankl reminds us that we retain the power to decide how we will respond. Aging Boomers, like the generation before them, will soon face their own “rendezvous with destiny.” Environmentalism will be, inescapably, an aging issue in years to come (Moody, 2008).
As Boomers have moved through middle age, for the most part, they have failed to prepare adequately for old age as “our future selves.” Obesity rates and health indicators are one reason for concern. The economic downturn that began in 2008 reminded us that most Boomers have not been able to save enough for retirement. Boomers face significant “longevity risk”—that is, the distinct possibility of outliving their assets.
They also face a world where the natural environment puts all generations, present and future, at risk for depleted collective assets such as fresh water, fossil fuels, and a stable planet. On top of all this, there is the troubling “legacy” question that Zalman Schachter posed: What kind of world will we be leaving to our successors?
Ironically, concern about our legacy comes at a moment when some biogerontologists argue it is possible to increase maximum human lifespan. Aubrey deGrey believes we could soon be on the threshold of a maximum lifespan far beyond what it is today: up from around 120 years to 500 years or more. Average life expectancy would go up proportionately. (See deGrey and Rae, 2007.)
When confronted with such a prospect, we easily find ourselves dizzy and disoriented. But try a provocative thought experiment. What if people routinely did live to be hundreds and hundreds of years old? What then?
Such a “super longevity” society would very likely develop more appreciation for long-range thinking. For example, what would be our attitude toward global warming or nuclear waste storage if we believed that we ourselves would live to see the consequences? How would we think about our obligations to the future if we imagined that we ourselves would be living to be 150 years old? A super longevity society could bring with it an upsurge of environmental consciousness on a scale never achieved so far.
Now step back from this thought experiment and ask the question about legacy. How do we introduce this same kind of concern for our successor generations—say, 500 years into the future—that a super longevity society could conceivably engender? How do we promote long-range thinking and concern about legacy?
The Canadian policy researcher Judith Maxwell (2007) has framed the challenge well: Rarely do we take the opportunity to try to reconcile immediate priorities with the long-term consequences for our children and grandchildren. And yet one could argue that the 21st century is the time when we have to stretch our time horizons—to pay more attention to the legacy we are creating for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Maxwell went on to say: “A former colleague once challenged me on this issue by asking: ‘Why should I look after future generations? What have they done for me?’” This troubling question underscores the limits of our ordinary thinking about the social contract (Partridge, 1981). Must we assume that the only basis for moral action would be some sort of primitive reciprocity: You do something for me, then I do something for you? But we cannot have such reciprocity or interaction with future generations, with “possible people” as yet unborn. Both self-interest and reciprocity fail to answer the troubling question.
What motivates elders to act in behalf of a collective future?
Yet it is clear that people often do act for reasons that transcend self-interest and go beyond any conventional kind of reciprocity. For example, we can explain some of the behavior of politicians as choices based on a desire to get reelected. But what explains the behavior of politicians in their final term in office? The answer is a concern for legacy, for what will come after them.
The literature of gerontology has paid scant attention to this matter of “legacy motivation” and when it has, attention has been directed at inheritance of material possessions. Hunter and Rowles (2005) see legacy motivation as an important component of the aging experience that could assume great significance in later life. But, the gerontologists Wright and Lund (2000) noted that environmental issues were largely missing in thinking about the future of an aging society. They urged more attention to critical issues such as sustainability, stewardship, natural capital, and the carrying capacity of the earth in thinking about the impact of population aging.
As we look to the future, we constantly hear predictions of “trainwreck” or “iceberg” or “tsunami.” In this view older people are just an expense item on health and welfare budgets. The positive answer will only come if we can identify the roots of legacy motivation that extend beyond the individual or the family: “outliving the self” as John Kotre (e.g., 1984) describes the motivation of generativity.
To respond to the simultaneous challenge of an aging society and a threatened global environment, we will need a new form of generativity that extends to the planet as a whole.
An Ideal Type: The “Eco-Elder”
As we think about the virtues that will be required to respond to the simultaneous challenges of population aging and environmental threat, I suggest that we think in terms of what Max Weber called “Ideal Types,” personality types or character traits that embody virtues or qualities widely admired in a society.
We see such Ideal Types in history. For example, the Knight (Sir Lancelot), the Explorer (Sir Francis Drake), or the Statesman (George Washington). In contemporary terms, think in terms of Ideal Types such as the Entrepreneur (Bill Gates) or the Liberated Woman (Gertrude Stein).
As we move into the twenty-first century, we will see a demographic wave as Boomers become elders (Roszak, 2009). In public discourse we already see certain Ideal Types for the concept of positive aging such as Successful Aging (good health) or Productive Aging (working longer, volunteering). Here I offer some traits for Eco-Elders, an Ideal Type reflecting legacy motivation or generativity in behalf of our collective future.
Gatekeepers of the Future
The late Marty Knowlton, founder of Elder-hostel, introduced this phrase to evoke what he felt would be required for elders to cultivate a “long view” about the future. The Gatekeepers-of-the-Future character trait was taken for granted in many traditional societies. Consider, for example, the words of Gregory Cajete, a Native American of the Tewa tribe in the Southwest (Hill, 1994):
The elders remind us of the importance of the long view when they say, “pin Peyeh obe”—look to the mountain. They use this phrase to remind us that we need to look at things as if we are looking out from the top of a mountain, seeing things in the much broader perspective of the generations that are yet to come. They remind us that in dealing with the landscape, we must think in terms of a ten-thousand-, twenty-thousand-, or thirty-thousand-year relationship.
Just as elders could cultivate a long view of the future, they also serve as custodians of memory of the past. In environmental terms, elders today remember a time when we could eat seafood without worrying about mercury, or where world cities, like Beijing, were not clouded by pollution. Elders are the natural constituency for genealogy and oral history, and they could become “memory keepers” for the community and the human species.
Erik Erikson’s virtue of “generativity” is linked to one’s offspring, who typically outlive us. But those who become grandparents or great-grandparents could exhibit an even greater measure of “grand generativity” as the time horizon expands to future generations.
All three of these traits are connected to a longer time horizon, a concern for posterity and for generations past and future. Other traits point to strength of character required to think more deeply about environmental matters. These are the virtues that will be required to cultivate what Daniel Goleman (2009) calls “ecological intelligence,” both among elders themselves and in the wider population.
Erikson postulated wisdom as a distinctive quality of the last stage of life. In recent years, lifespan development psychology has begun to identify the characteristics of wise judgment, partly under stimulus from the work of the late Paul Baltes. Of course, not all elders exhibit the virtue of wisdom. But long and rich life experience provides a basis for cultivating wise judgments about matters of inherent complexity, such as the environmental crisis facing current and future generations.
In a world of complexity and uncertainty, judgments derived entirely from past experience will no longer be sufficient to address the unprecedented historic circumstances. Eco-elders will not be able to make their best contribution without rigorous activities of lifelong learning. Programs such as the Legacy Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland point the way to combining lifelong learning with civic engagement and environmental advocacy.
Disengagement and “Late Freedom”
Gerontology has mainly favored “activity” as opposed to “disengagement” when thinking about preferred patterns of later life. But disengagement, including retirement from work, has the virtue of offering more time for leadership unattached to personal ambition.
The essence of true civic engagement came in the example of Benjamin Franklin, in his eighties, participating in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Elders who are beyond personal ambition can exercise a unique kind of “late freedom.”
Consider the words of David Brower, former president of the Sierra Club, written at the age of 79:
At my age, they can’t do much to hurt me. I have a new freedom. They can’t change my career, I’ve got it made. If I go to jail or am executed, it doesn’t matter—though I’d rather stick around. I’d rather be out of jail than in, but not at the expense of this new-found freedom. Young people don’t have this liberty. They’ve got years ahead of them, families, need for income. They can’t alienate themselves too much from the system. I say to people my age, “You have this freedom. Please use it. You’ve had a role in whatever’s happened to the earth, and it hasn’t been that good. You now have a role in doing something about it. If you’re going to die, make sure your boots are on. There are so many of us…. More and more of us…. You’ve got to sound off. The older you are, the freer you are, as long as you last” (Terkel, 1996).
These are words that could inspire aging Boomers to find a Golden Pond that is not polluted, to ensure a sustainable world for all generations. Will it be achieved in their, that is, in our lifetimes? Perhaps not, which is why we are concerned with legacy.
It need not be a majority, or even huge numbers, that create the change we need. But as each of us looks into the eyes of our children and grandchildren, we may find the inspiration we need to create a world we can leave behind. When we come to believe that, we will know that we are “saved.”
Butler, R. N. 1984. A Generation at Risk: When the Baby Boomers Reach Golden Pond. Austin, Tex.: Hogg Foundation.
deGrey, A., and Rae, M. 2007. Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime. New York: St. Martin’s Press
Goleman, D. 2009. Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything. New York: Broadway Books.
Hill, N. S. 1994. Words of Power. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum.
Hunter, E. G., and Rowles, G. D. 2005. “Leaving a Legacy: Toward a Typology.” Journal of Aging Studies 19(3): 327–47.
Kotre, J. 1984. Outliving the Self. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Maxwell, J. 2007. “Let’s Start Paying the Debts We Are Leaving Our Grandchildren.” Transition, 5-6, www.transitionmagazine.com.
Moody, H. R. 2008. “Environmentalism as an Aging Issue.” Public Policy and Aging Report 18(2): 1–7.
Moody, H. R. 2002. “Who’s Afraid of Life Extension?” Generations 25(4): 33–7.
Partridge, E. 1981. Responsibilities to Future Generations. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Roszak, T. 2009. The Making of an Elder Culture. Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers.
Schachter, Z. 1997. From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Terkel, S. 1996. Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Wright, S. D., and Lund, D. A. 2000. “Gray and Green? Stewardship and Sustainability in an Aging Society.” Journal of Aging Studies 14(3): 229–49.
Originally published in Generations: Journal of the American Society on Aging, Winter 2009–2010. Adapted by permission of the author.
Featured image by Flickr user @Doug88888.