Most of the days I am hard pressed to feel good when I start to plan my blogging entry. (Disclosure: I have very little hair left.) David Brooks, writing his column in the NYTimes, is very reassuring to folks at my stage of life. Contrasting recent findings to the threatening ideas of Freud, Walt Whitman, or Shakespeare, Brooks paints a much rosier picture of the seventh stage of man than Jacques paints in his famous monologue: “Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
Developmental psychologists, when they treated old age at all, often regarded it as a period of withdrawal. The elderly slowly separate themselves from the world. They cannot be expected to achieve new transformations. “About the age of fifty,” Freud wrote, “the elasticity of the mental processes on which treatment depends is, as a rule, lacking. Old people are no longer educable.”
Well, that was wrong. Over the past few years, researchers have found that the brain is capable of creating new connections and even new neurons all through life.
Brooks, not surprisingly with his interest in sociology, points to another kind of factor.
One of the keys to healthy aging is what George Vaillant of Harvard calls “generativity” — providing for future generations. Seniors who perform service for the young have more positive lives and better marriages than those who don’t.
The gist of the article is that, although these and other findings should bring comfort to the aging, the reverse is true for the younger generations. Social programs now in place take resources from the young and funnel it to the aging.
The odd thing is that when you turn to political life, we are living in an age of reverse-generativity. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.
Brooks is skeptical about rebalancing the flow of public funds at the hands of the political system, and suggests that we old guys should lead the charge out of care for our families and the future. Brooks suggests not so subtly that this unbalance is not sustainable. Explicit manifestations of caring are a key feature of sustainability. So, maybe he does has something of interest to this blog’s basic theme here.
Spontaneous social movements can make the unthinkable thinkable, and they can do it quickly. It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power. . . It may seem unrealistic — to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. But in the private sphere, you see it every day. Old people now have the time, the energy and, with the Internet, the tools to organize.
The elderly. They are our future.
Hmm. . . I wonder how many of us even know that Twitter exists or have a page on Facebook?