Life: slide or roundabout?

roundaboutSomething enormous is happening. Two enormous things, in fact, and in time they may find a way to work together. That was the conclusion of this afternoon, which I spent in a very interesting discussion with people in cities all over the world, thanks (again) to Cisco.

One of the enormous things is demographic shift; the other is technology. Often they seem at odds (we hear that old people aren’t interested in computers, and that, anyway, technology is no substitute for face-to-contact). But they are not, in reality, opposite trends; together, they could transform our sense of who we are, change our understanding of what it means to live a long and rewarding life.

Thanks to Cisco’s telepresence technology, participants from Toronto, Washington, Almere, London, Geneva, Manchester and Brussels talked about ageing for 90 minutes without having to go anywhere much. (I got a bus.) And very interesting it was too – especially the point made by John Beard of the World Health Organisation, that we think in a thoroughly anachronistic way about the shape of human lives: youth and education, then work, then retirement. We imagine a life rather as a kind of slide, which you climb to the top (actually, this is my metaphor, but I think I’m representing him fairly) and then slither down through physical and mental and financial decline to death.

In fact, it would make much more sense to think of life as a series of roundabouts, which you could jump on and off at different points, dropping in and out of paid work to have children, write a book, volunteer, look after elderly parents, do a postgraduate degree, learn something new.

We need, in other words, to rethink life to account for the fact that people are living much longer and, on the whole, more healthily. This would doubtless help us make sense of the dead years, Marc Freedman’s ‘identity void’ between 55 and 80 when people aren’t really sure what they’re for.

It would also make far more sense for women. Annemarie Jorritsma, the mayor of Almere in the Netherlands, said she couldn’t believe that women are still expected to have children and forge their careers at the very same time. The only reason for this, when it is perfectly possible to work effectively into your seventies, is that it happens to suit thirtysomething men. Anne Marie says she never imagined she get to the age of 60 and this ridiculous paradox still be the case.

We have to hope that, somehow, economic necessity will help us to start thinking in terms of roundabouts , because it’s pretty clear we’d be a lot better off if we could all get off the unproductive and soul-destroying slides.

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Inventing a new phase of life

Marc Freedman

Marc Freedman

It was a huge treat to meet Marc Freedman this week when he was in London. At Agebomb’s event at NESTA, he talked about the paradox that longer lives – which are obviously a good thing – are also widely seen as a social disaster. In the US, as well as here, there are plenty of people ready to warn of impending conflict between the generations.

Marc described how his involvement with mentoring programmes started him thinking about the contributions that people over the age of 55 are capable of making. This has led him to spearhead a movement in the United States for Encore careers – demanding work in the public good in the second half of life. He suggested we need to invent a new phase of life to acknowledge that this is happening, much as adolescence was invented in the early twentieth century.

Funnily enough, the man who popularised the notion of adolescence, G. Stanley Hall, decided in the last years of his life that he should have focused instead on a different phase: when people have finished bringing up kids but aren’t anywhere near ready to die, the very stage we now need acknowledged and catered for.

So what should we call them, these people who face 10, 20, 30 more years of active life, yet who aren’t the young executives and midlife parents who form our presiding image of adulthood? Could we think of something active and aspirational; something that makes sense of what Marc called the ‘windfall of talent’ they represent?

G. Stanley Hall thought the phase should be called senescence, but that’s out now because it’s attracted too many connotations of decline. What’s needed is something that suggests potential.

Marc describes people in this phase – whatever we’re going to call it – as existing in an ‘identity void.’ They’re not taken seriously by the media, nor by the world of work. It’s not always easy for them to achieve the kinds of things they want to. Yet they have distinctive talents and aspirations. In his view, these come from a combination of their sense of mortality – that there’s only a limited time left to achieve; their recognition that it is nevertheless enough time to do something significant; and their consciousness that we are what survives of us – a kind of future-mindedness.

This collision of different senses of time, he argues, leads to an urgency to achieve, a new phase of innovation. People in this period of life have a distinctive purpose. Of course, stages of life are man-made (a friend of mine who works with Afghan refugees tells me Afghans have little sense of age and don’t celebrate birthdays). But this would be a useful invention at this point, because it would pave the way for and legitimise institutions to go with it – internships in socially useful occupations, for example, and MBAs targeted at the over 55s.

In the United States, the Purpose Prize, which Marc founded to recognise entrepreneurs over the age of 60 who are doing something for the public good, attracts 1500 applications a year. For many people in the first half of the twentieth century, this life stage is not about freedom from work, but freedom to work. These people are already here and they want work that is meaningful, rewarding, and has an eye on the long term. We really should find a way to recognise them.

Come to our ‘what is the point of retirement?’ event

retire

Here is the invitation to Agebomb’s NESTA event on October 5th. Please do sign up!

Innovation for a New Old Age

What is the future of retirement?  68% of Britons now expect to work past retirement age while one in 10 believe they will never be able to afford to give up work.  As the default retirement age is abolished, and the state pension age recedes, what are the implications for graduates who can’t get jobs?  What does the future hold for people now in their forties, fifties and sixties?

NESTA and Agebomb will be considering these questions on Tuesday 5th October.  We will be joined by Marc Freedman, the San Francisco-based author of Prime Time and Encore and campaigner for socially useful, demanding work for people in the second half of life.  One of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, Marc founded the Experience Corps in the US, and the Purpose Prize, which awards prizes to entrepreneurs over the age of 60.  His new book Shift looks at how baby boomers need to change to make their lives productive, happy and fulfilling.

Baroness Julia Neuberger will give a campaigning baby boomer’s perspective.  Charlie Leadbeater – NESTA fellow and a leading thinker on social innovation, Geraldine Bedell – journalist and founder of the Agebomb website – and Caroline Waters – BT and Chair for NESTA’s work on ageing will also be speaking.

For the last year, NESTA has been running an extensive programme devoted to innovation in ageing, working with individuals and organisations across England and Scotland.  Please join us for a stimulating debate about whether the second half of life can be an opportunity to extend working lives, even give something back.

To register for this event, please click here Date: Tuesday, 5th October
Time: 09:00 – 10:45 (registration and breakfast will open at 08:30 with presentations starting at 09:00) 
Venue: NESTA, 1 Plough Place, London, EC4A 1DE

Agebomb to hold an event with Nesta in early October

Stop Press!Excellent news: the splendid Marc Freedman will be visiting London from San Francisco for two days in early October and has agreed to be the keynote speaker at an Agebomb event on the new old age, to be held in conjunction with Nesta on the morning of Tuesday October 5.

We will be looking at innovation to make the second half of life a success.

Marc spearheaded the creation of the Experience Corps, which gets older people working with schools and other youth organisations across the United States. He is an eloquent campaigner for Encore Careers – serious, socially useful work for people in the second half of life – and the founder of The Purpose Prize, which awards prizes of $100,000 and $50,000 to social innovators over the age of 55.

His new book, Shift, which will be published in January 2011, is about the transition of the boomer generation to a new stage of life.

Charlie Leadbeater, a leading thinker on social innovation, author of We-Think: The Power of Mass Creativity, and occasional guest blogger on Agebomb, is also a confirmed speaker. Other speakers will be unveiled soon.

Through its Age Unlimited programme, Nesta has done a good deal of work on the demands and ambitions of a different kind of older population, and this is will be an opportunity to think about what the second half of life will hold for a generation with entirely different, but very varied, expectations.

We will be asking: what is the point of retirement? Is there any real choice for people in how they spend the second half of their lives? If not, what would make a difference? Could Encore careers work in the UK? Can you change the second half of life without changing the first?

More news soon.

With a little help from new friends…the Southwark Circle story

Linda Merron

Linda Merron

‘I haven’t had such a good time in my life…ever, I think.’

Linda Merron, who was 60 in March, suffers from ME, heart disease and Crohn’s fibromyalgia. When her 24 year-old daughter Rosie moved away last year, taking her social life (which was also Linda’s social life) with her, she started to worry about loneliness and the implications of ageing. ‘I thought that once I hit 60, people would start treating me like a simpleton. Pensioners are portrayed in the media as foolish and vulnerable; I didn’t think there would be much to look forward to.’

I met Linda at her house near Elephant and Castle in South London, where she was having lunch with her friend, Carmen Hortal, 81. The two women met through Southwark Circle, the first example of what its founders hope will become a national, even international, association of networks of older people. In the year since Southwark Circle started, two other Circles have got going, in Hammersmith and Fulham and Suffolk, and nine more are at the business planning stage. The aim of each of them is to build relationships locally, enabling members to participate in their communities and assert control over their lives. Continue reading

A word about words

A photograph of the word 'Old' on a wall‘Older people’, the subject matter of this website, has a euphemistic ring. It sounds weaselly. Older than what, or whom? Babies? Toddlers? Teenagers? It’s a phrase that reminds me of the old Jonathan Miller joke: ‘In fact, I’m not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish.’ It prevaricates and quibbles and refuses to come out and say what it means, leaving open the option that it could be referring to a group who are older than, say, a class of 10 year-olds.

The relative term has grown in popularity because the absolute one – old – is so loaded with cultural baggage. ‘Old’ is used so often as a synonym for bad that we’ve stopped noticing. It conjures images of ‘tired’ or ‘finished’ or ‘obsolete.’ This is also true of its satellite words: think of ‘sunset industries’, or ‘ageing infrastructure’ or conversely, ‘young cities’. (I was tempted to write ‘vibrant young cities’ there, because that’s the near-automatic second adjective). Words that began simply as chronological designations, open to all sorts of evaluative layerings, have become rusted over with self-loathing notions of decline and decay.

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The key to the big society

David-Cameron-Nick-CleggSo Britain finally has a new government, after five days in which the news has mainly been that some men were going in or out of a building.  The policy positions of the first coalition since the second world war, hammered out in those meetings, will emerge over the coming days and weeks, but it seems likely that the Conservatives’ central proposal for domestic policy, the big society, will remain a significant part of the rhetoric.

Before the election, David Cameron described the big society as his party’s guiding philosophy. The Liberal Democrats share with their new Conservative colleagues a suspicion of the big state – which the big society is meant to render unnecessary – making this a relatively easy matter on which to collaborate. It is not yet clear, perhaps even to the Conservatives, quite what their big society amounts to. But one thing is plain: people over 50 will be crucial to its success. This could be, for older people, a big moment.

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