Aging in America: Remembering the Importance of Seniority

We may fear “getting old,” but let us embrace “getting older.”

Posted Aug 18, 2019

A friend of mine, a philosopher, used to teach a college course on the “ages and stages” of life.  Each phase of existence, or so he told his students, presents distinctive challenges that people must confront. As we address those issues, we build frameworks that are the groundwork of future possibilities.  Early life-challenges are never resolved entirely; nor are they set aside completely. Instead, they linger around us⁠—and within us⁠—as we move on to other, seemingly more pressing matters.  In such a perspective, no one stage of life is more interesting or important than another.  Biography is cumulative. We remain vital until the end.

I think of such issues because I have been pondering the deaths of several family members and friends during the last couple years.  At the same time, I have entered what our culture euphemistically terms retirement.  And of course, I am getting older.

None of this distinguishes my concerns from those of others, at least others of my Baby Boomer generation.  Collectively, we millions are moving into what most of us understand to be life’s final stage, or perhaps stages.  Once distant horizons are coming into view.

There may be societies where such changes are comfortable, even anticipated affairs.  But our society is not one of these.  We Americans celebrate if not youth then young adulthood or, and more precisely again, the times of life when people are in the fullness of their powers.  We want, as the slogan has it, to be old enough to know what we want ˗ and young enough to get it.

For those of us of more advanced years, and perhaps diminishing prospects, the status “middle-aged” will do.  Middle-aged people, or so we believe, still possess the bulk of their physical abilities.  Their social connections, and capacities for making these, are arguably at their fullest.  Their knowledge, judgment, and analytical skills - based on education, job involvement, and general life experiences– exceed those of their youthful selves.  Typically, they have learned to control their more dangerous impulses.  Often, the middle-aged are in charge of someone or something, perhaps a still dependent child or a small corner of an office or shop.  Middle-aged people assert themselves in organizations like the PTA, community council, and local sports league.  They are determined, even noisy, in their politics.  When they express themselves, they expect others to listen.    

Of course, claims for being middle-aged can border on the preposterous.  My mother, dearly departed, noted that it is hard for someone to maintain that they are still middle-aged when their eldest child turns 60. Still, we cling to this notion.  Being middle-aged in this country is like being middle-class, an identity claimed curiously by many who are either too poor or too rich for the designation. To be middle-class is somehow to be a member of the Club, part of the public discourse, neither victim not victimizer.  Politicians point to this class, if only with lip service, as critical to success in elections and public policy.  Being middle-aged, or just claiming to be, arouses the same feelings of competence and centrality.

Beyond the pale of middle age lies seniority, or more darkly, old age.  To be sure, there are certain benefits to being older.  Medicare is a critically important benefit.  Helpful also are the senior rates at restaurants, groceries, hotels, theaters, and the like.  Of course, many of these discounts are merely attempts to get people with discretionary money and time into their environs; and the providers are not fussy about the ages involved (think of a 50-year-old AARP member and his card-carrying 35-year-old spouse). Beneficial or not, such offers carry with them the taint that one is no longer a fully-fledged “adult.”  The coupons, tickets and signage make this plain.

Consistent with this idea of seniority is the notion that older people should be “retired,” literally to have drawn back from life’s hustle-and-bustle, and more precisely, from the throes of work.  “Are you still at such-and-such? I’d have thought you’d be retired by now?”  If you answer that, indeed, you remain employed, the conclusion of the interrogator is that you are, somewhat pathetically, holding on and, worse, blocking younger people from doing work that they could do more effectively than you can.  Many of the all-too-real reasons for continuing to work⁠—need for income, healthcare benefits for loved ones, feelings of continuity and importance, social connections to workmates, or just a place to go during the day ˗ seem illegitimate to the listener. “Well, I’m surprised you didn’t plan for that.  You should be out there enjoying yourself in your golden years. Like Bob and Carol; they just got back from a cruise somewhere.”

I will not criticize those retired people who spend their later years traveling, upgrading their homes, dining out, recreating at pricey venues, or otherwise fulfilling their estimations of the good life.  People have a right to gad about, to spend their last decades as they see fit. More than that, commercialized enjoyment, which supports legions of younger workers who earn their livings by servicing such consumers, has its place. Nor do I take umbrage at “bucket lists,” the checklist of envisioned experiences one should complete before night closes in.

However, that vision of declining years⁠—proclaimed as the rightful inheritance of the healthy, wealthy, and wise⁠—is only one small part of the retirement story.  Most people cannot spend their later years in such culturally exalted ways.  Many keep working, often at less than full-time employment, because they have to.  Many take care of grandchildren or other relatives because they understand the importance of that commitment.  Many find themselves preoccupied with their own health needs, and with the health needs of their loved ones.  Many do not live in glorious independence but depend on others for their sustenance. For such people, retirement does not represent an easy time of life; it is a hard one.

All this raises a question: What is the proper role for a person in the final decades of life?

The wise reader would reply quickly that there is no one role.  As in the other stages of life, people occupy quite different life-stations.  Some seniors are disencumbered enough to go and do as they please, in search of new stimulations. Others have enduring obligations, to themselves and to others, which they are proud to honor.  Many, as I noted above, have certain “choices” forced upon them by the nature of their circumstances. And most, or at least most of the people I know, would say that their life-course is a combination of these pathways.

Despite these differences, seniority has a way of uniting its congregants, willingly or not.  Elders look and sound different.  They have aches and pains, and worse.  Their bodies function differently. They have abandoned, or modified, some of their former activities. Their energy levels have declined; they do not get around as they once did.  Of special significance is the fact that other people recognize them as old and treat them in those terms.  All of us understand that humans, like other plants and animals, go through the stages of life.  At best, they reach this culminating time.

So, what should one say about seniority?  Is it simply a frenetic going and doing, a rage to stay “active” until the end?

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson provided one answer to this question.  Erikson, whose writing was a feature of my friend’s course – argued that human development continues through life.  The young have a wonderful energy and a sense of their growing powers.  They yearn for independence. But those “gangling bodies and minds,” to use Erikson’s terms, require coordination and prudent direction.  That development is not just a physiological or even a psychological process; it requires engagement with other people and with the culture in which those people live.

Erikson invited his readers to see development in this wider context.  As he saw it, personal change involves dealing with situations, which expand and thicken in their implications as the person ages.  Those challenges invite responses that are not just technical adjustments but emotional and social commitments as well.  Although we work out our life-strategies as well as we can (considering the supports available to us at the time), our mastery is never complete.  Nor do we triumph completely over the emotional issues that these situations trigger.  Indeed, difficulties at an early stage may hamper all that follows.

Recall for a moment his famous depiction of life’s eight stages.  Children under five work through a series of emotion-based life strategies, establishing comprehensions of “trust” (versus “mistrust”), “autonomy” (versus “doubt/shame”), and “initiative” (versus “guilt”).  They depend on circles of caring others for these commitments.  Older kids, moving into new environments and becoming more independent, confront the challenges of personal accomplishment (“industry” versus “inferiority”) and later, of personally managed selfhood (“identity” versus “identity confusion”).

Subsequent to these are the challenges of making worthy, lasting commitments to others (“intimacy” versus “isolation”).  Building on this platform, “adults” confront the challenge of giving back to the communities that have sponsored them, of contributing to the rising generations (“generativity” versus “stagnation”).  Those who have received the gift of life are to reciprocate that support.

What of fully-fledged “maturity,” and the challenges that attend that final stage?  For Erikson, the quest for people of this age is to find “integrity.”  The opposite of this is “despair.”  What that means is that older people should come to terms with the life they have lived, with the life they are living now, and with the future.  They should locate themselves within the history of their society and find some solace in that placement. They should accept the proposition that they may need now to be the followers of younger people instead of their leaders.  Erikson, the ego psychologist, conceptualized this as the triumph of rational comprehension over the warring impulses of youth.  Old age is an opportunity to slow down, pause, and reflect⁠—to become “philosophical.”

Like my professor friend, I respect Erikson’s challenge to older people to become wise, to serve as models of patient reasoning. Amidst life’s inconsistencies, there must be a place for sober judgment and equanimity of spirit.  But I also think the quest for “integrity” means more than that.

To feel oneself whole, as the term integrity implies, is not just to promote mental or even psychological coherence.  It also means maintaining principled connections to the other domains of selfhood: body, environment, society, and culture.  In the case of the body, that means acknowledging, but not capitulating to, the fact of physical decline.  Seniority should not be a frightened race from death.  Nor should it be a vain attempt to look or act young. People should keep themselves up as well as they can but they should also respect nature’s rule: being born and dying are forever bound.

In much the same fashion, one should embrace the natural environment and the lessons it teaches us.  That world creates, indeed is, the condition of our living.  It transcends our being in ways beyond our imagining.  Its vast dimensions⁠—of space, time, and consequence⁠—make personal existence minuscule.  We are but one species amongst countless others.  In that light, integrity means not only acknowledging that dependency but also undertaking the forms of stewardship that promote planetary well-being.

Social integrity is critically important also.  We depend on our connections to other people.  It is they who bore and nurtured us, taught us, guided us spiritually, employed us, dealt with our illnesses, and in a thousand other ways provided us with their services.  Whatever our individualistic mythology may tell us, integrity does not mean standing apart in principled rejection. It means recognizing our embeddedness in the communities that have formed us.  The task of seniority is to appreciate that continuity and to remind others of the significance of this for the rising generations.

A final site of integrity is culture.  Our world is marked by human creations⁠—languages, beliefs, customs, technologies, organizational forms, and the like.  We have our great religious traditions.  In much the same way, material constructions mark our landscapes.  These symbolic and physical edifices make plain who we have been as a people, who we are now, and who we are poised to be.  Once again, the role of the older person is to remember the past, in the most clear-sighted ways, and to bring that perspective to present-day considerations.

In this essay then, I have not advocated becoming “old,” if by that term one means becoming disconnected, disinterested, and static.  Surely, that condition is the prelude to death, which all of us must accept when it comes.  But I do support the process of becoming “older” and the more general significance of seniority.

Seniors understand the meanings of the different decades of life.  They have witnessed many of the trials and tribulations of their nation’s history.  Better than others, they know of continuity, and discontinuity.  As Erikson emphasizes, those comprehensions are important to the individual in these final years. But integrity also means staying connected to other people and to the world we share.  It means acknowledging the generations that are now gone and those that are yet to come.  That abiding gift of seniority - to reflect patiently about the meanings of human experience and to express those judgments in steady commitments⁠—is especially important in a technologically entranced and future-oriented society like our own.

References

E. Erikson (1963).  "Eight Ages of Man."  Pp. 247-274 in Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton.