As he turns sixty, our correspondent Mark Pesce ponders how to ensure those who follow us enjoy the same opportunity to live long enough to learn what is worth doing, and possess the wisdom to do it.
This week I turn sixty, something increasingly on my mind as my personal odometer grows closer and closer to ticking over. Nothing forces a focus on the inevitable in quite the same way as a major milestone birthday, particularly in light of my own family tree: three of four grandparents gone before their sixty-fifth birthdays.
That state of affairs would have seemed utterly unremarkable in December of 1962 – some might even have been judged it to be ‘good genes’. But the nearly two billion seconds of my own lifetime have seen an enormous transformation both in our lifespans, and how we perceive the years of our ‘seniority’.
Sixty, even seventy years seems to us a life drawn to a conclusion before its natural run, which we (amongst an informal poll of my peers) imagine to be something around, perhaps even above, ninety.
That change in expectations encompasses essence of a massive cultural transition. My grandparents certainly did not expect to live into their nineties. My parent’s generation seemed taken by surprise when they lived far longer than their own parents. Most had not planned for this, nor knew quite what to do with their ‘extra life’. My own generation senses that if we can avoid both trauma and serious disease, we will live perhaps fifty percent longer than our grandparents, and possibly thirty percent longer than our parents.
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That change in expectations has only just begun to transform our culture. I belong to a generation that will not retire early, continuing to work productively for as long as we can, because we’ve learned that meaningful work makes that extra life worthwhile. And because retirement in our mid-sixties – when there’s a whole third of life to be lived – necessitates a rethinking of financial strategies. Before long, our governments will change the rules, reframing both pension and superannuation programs to keep us working well into our seventies.
My grandparents certainly did not expect to live into their 90s. My parent’s generation seemed taken by surprise when they lived far longer than their own parents.
The kind of work we do in our eighth and ninth decades of life cannot look exactly like the sorts of work we undertook in our third or fourth. Although we have learned we must do everything in our power to avoid becoming immobilised by infirmity or frailty – the quickest routes to oblivion – neither can we simply throw ourselves into manual labour. Instead, culture will find our lived experience increasingly valuable.
While the physical apparatus of culture has substantially transformed over the last six decades, the internals of that culture – how we think and feel and behave toward one another – remains stubbornly stable. Whatever our new toys, people persist in being both horrible and wonderful. Someone who has ‘seen it all’ has better tools for navigating through the conflicting and contending contest of wills that have always been the foundation of human society. Seven or eight decades provide a broad scope for the forgiveness of human foibles, paired with an intolerance for bad behaviour.
Before long, our governments will change the rules, reframing both pension and superannuation programs to keep us working well into our seventies.
That combination of forgiveness and intolerance will loom large over the years through to the middle of the 21st century, as we see an ever-larger and ever-more-varied population of ‘seniors’ adopting roles as both cultural arbitrators and – quite likely – conservators of a set of human values that emphasise collegiality, consensus and congruence. Naturally, some will chafe under this ‘grandmotherly kindness’ – it was ever thus.
As my generation bends the institutions of culture to meet our needs, we will direct substantial resources toward maintaining our wellness. This serves both cultural ends – preventing a crushing burden of socialised medical costs – and our private desire to live in wellness for as long as possible. We haven’t seen this at scale yet, but within the next decade we’ll be as comfortable with ‘senior wellness’ as we are today with youth wellness. It will quickly be grasped as an excellent mechanism for the generational transfer of wealth: a new generation will grow rich keeping the old young.
A new generation will grow rich keeping the old young.
In the next decade, as my Gen X peers flip their own odometers, we will see an increasing focus upon and refinement of the ways of living in this final third of our lives. We want to maintain our agency, and do so until the very end. Trillions of dollars will flow in that direction, reordering the priorities of our material culture along very different lines than those experienced, almost a century prior, by the Baby Boomers. Where their youth transformed the material world of the 1950s and 1960s, our seniority will drive transformations even more profound in the 2030s and 2040s.
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All of this will be playing out against a rising climate crisis – the direct consequence of our material culture. Managing our selfishness – what we want for ourselves against what we can endure together – will require every ounce of our experience. Civilisation has always found a way to balance selfishness against existential threats; cultures that lose that balance fail to thrive. Knowing this means we can work to avoid it – and must.
Managing our selfishness – what we want for ourselves against what we can endure together – will require every ounce of our experience.
Should my generation block the transition to a material culture that substantially dampens climatological feedbacks, it (and I) will simply be erased by younger generations focused selfishly – and rightfully – on their own survival. For that reason, I see my generation as having One Job: Doing whatever we can to assist in this transition.
Because that requires the careful balancing of private will and public interest, it will not be easy. But few reach their seventh, eighth and ninth decades afraid of hard work. Now – after the children have been raised and the kudos earned and the mortgage paid – we could rest on our laurels, counting time until the inevitable. Or we could make the most of this extra life, doing our utmost to ensure that those who follow us enjoy same opportunity to live long enough to learn what is worth doing, and possess the wisdom to do it.
Originally published by Cosmos as The final third
Mark Pesce invented the technology for 3D on the Web, has written seven books, was for seven years a judge on the ABC's "The New Inventors", founded postgraduate programs at USC and AFTRS, holds an honorary appointment at Sydney University, is a multiple-award-winning columnist for The Register, pens another column for IEEE Spectrum, and is a professional futurist and public speaker. Pesce hosts both the award-winning "The Next Billion Seconds" and "This Week in Startups Australia" podcasts.