As I began writing down ideas for this column, one of my kids synchronously texted me a recent quote from Jeff Bridges in a New York Times interview: “There’s a thing, and I don’t know what to term it — old-age adolescence? A thing that we’re going through, that we’ve never gone through.”
Yes, exactly! Over the last 125 years, our species has added more longevity than all of previous civilization combined. We’ve not seen this lifespan or health-span before. Human beings are, yet again, in a new phase.
For example, in the United States, prior to the 20th century, there was no “adolescence” — people were children until they were adults. As society shifted from agrarian toward industrial, and as demographics shifted as well, humans began to understand a new life stage called adolescence. One aspect of this development was that the standards for children did not apply to adolescents. Similarly, today, the standards for adults do not apply to us older people. I suspect adolescence existed before people actually started to use that term. Likewise, our post-adulthood phase already exists even though we don’t yet have a name for it.
In post-adulthood, you can call us chicken soup, just don’t call us older adults.
It used to be that people lived until retirement and then wound down for three or four years. Today, those three or four years are closer to 30 or 40 years. One term, whether older adult or senior, cannot accurately describe a 30- or 40-year age range.
The term older adult actually fosters prejudice because it implies that those of us in our last third of life are merely older versions of our adult selves — it promotes the ageist view that young is good, old is bad. It inappropriately uses the standards of adulthood to judge our new post-adulthood phase. Please don’t compare us to our younger selves; compare us to ourselves.
Have you ever heard anybody ask, “When does adolescence start?” or “Does adolescence start on the same date for all of us?” Probably not. Adolescence has general characteristics, the particulars of which differ for individuals. The same is true of our currently unfolding post-adulthood phase.
Yes, we don’t yet have the right words to describe us, but the words we do use matter. If we get to live long enough, our adulthood standards and judgments can change. How might these standards evolve? Perhaps solitude becomes more attractive. Perhaps we experience an increased feeling of affinity with past generations. Perhaps what’s really important to us changes as we age into post-adulthood.
This transition can be made more difficult because of ageism. In our present ageist culture, where young is good and old is bad, who really wants to get old? Many of us look at aging as just making the best of a bad situation. Becoming aware of our post-adulthood can help us to re-frame aging and to live with more intention.