New Age Aging And Workism - September 8, 2023

Rosh Hashanah begins next Friday night. The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland has created two websites that may be helpful.


Click here for a High Holidays calendar. We have many wonderful synagogues in our Jewish community who are very welcoming and other groups holding High Holiday programs and activities. We hope you will find your place. You can also click here for additional High Holiday resources.



Two recent articles captured my attention -- both having to do with aging.


Age Wave’s latest study, The New Age of Agingprovides insights into the future as the older adult population jumps by at least 50% over the next 30 years. In fact, by 2034 there will be more Americans past retirement age than there are children.


The study’s results illustrate a dramatic shift in how Americans define old age and envision the possibilities of the later years of life. Here are some key takeaways from the survey.


"Old" is not what it used to be -- The survey found that while age 60 was considered “old” in their grandparents’ time, now age 80 is the median age considered “old” today. (I am sure many octogenarians would dispute that.)


Our healthspans do not match our lifespans -- In recent decades, we have successfully extended our lifespans, but our healthspans (i.e., the years of dependable good health) have not kept up, remaining at an average of 66 years. Americans will spend a median of 12 years living with a disability or serious disease. Globally, the U.S. ranks #1 in healthcare expenditures per capita but only #68 in healthy life expectancy.


Happiness soars with age -- Elders today feel happier, more free, and less anxiety-ridden than younger generations. 71% of Americans 65+ say the best time of their lives is right now or in front of them.


All about the fountain of usefulness -- In this new age of aging, the importance of youthfulness has been replaced by usefulness. The survey found that 83% of U.S. adults 65+ say it is more important for them to feel useful than youthful in their retirement years. Today’s elders increasingly want a continued sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. (This and the next finding tie in to the other article I will share below.)


The definition of "retirement" is changing -- 97% of adults 65+ agree it is important to stay curious and be willing to learn new things throughout life’s later years. Similarly, 66% of Americans age 50+ see retirement as a new chapter in lifewhile only 16% say it’s principally a time for rest and relaxation.


Life lessons are the most important legacy -- Psychologist Erik Erickson wrote, “I am what survives of me.” The study shows that 65% of adults 50+ think that values and life lessons are the most important thing to pass on to their heirs and loved ones. Only 22% said financial assets were the most important.


These findings only reinforced New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks' recent article in The Atlantic, The New Old AgeHe discusses the transition and challenges once we enter our “encore years.” For many, our sense of importance comes from our professional achievements. The “loss” that comes with retirement can be daunting for many. “People from all income levels derive some of their identity from how they contribute to the world and provide for those they love, and people at all income levels feel a crisis of identity, and get thrown back on existential questions, when those roles change or fade away.”


Brooks refers to Derek Thompson’s articlewhere he talks about “workism,” which “valorizes work, career, and achievement above all else.” For many, there is an overreliance on climbing to the top. We are taught from an early age to get ahead and impress. That comes at an expense – too little time and effort devoted to curiosity learning or spiritual growth.


In the end, we may look back and realize that life until retirement is all about career and efforts to maximize success. Along the way we abandon some of our dreams. I keep saying to my own children, “What is your rush? Enjoy a gap year. Enjoy school. Find new hobbies. Travel. Learn new things. And remind yourself to never stop. Because one day your focus will be to wake up and go to work – and do it every day for the next 40+ years.”


I wish I had that mindset growing up. I graduated college, went straight to graduate school, and three days after graduation started my professional career. My wife was no different. For us, it was all about starting our life together, getting jobs, and paying off our student loans. Nothing else. Then came the cats, the dogs, and children. They became our central focus (and joy!), but work was always omnipresent.


As we approach our mid-50s, we are trying to figure out this “workism” thing. One child is now on a post-college gap year (excited for her) and the other a sophomore in college. We have no one at home except our dog. Someone decided these are people’s peak working years. But we, along with our friends, are now thinking (better, dreaming) about what retirement may be like.


So two things:


  • Our Jewish community spends a great deal of time focused on the aged (oftentimes those needing living assistance). One thing is clear, we must not forget about those ages 50-80+ who are active and have so much to offer – and truly want to be asked. 


  • “Workism” is real. Yes, I hope we all love our jobs and find great meaning and fulfillment. I certainly do! At the same time, we cannot allow it to consume us and miss out on other opportunities in our lives.


Speaking of opportunities, do not miss our community’s intergenerational Family Mission to Israel in 2024Only 180 spots available (for ages 5-120)! I hope you will consider bringing your family with us. Add your name to the interested list to get more information.


Shabbat shalom.


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