By Brian Hieggelke
Ted Fishman and I got to know each other more than two decades ago, when he was transitioning from a short-lived career as a futures trader (after graduating from Princeton and teaching in Asia) into what would become a very successful career as a journalist and best-selling writer, and I was starting Newcity. Neither of us were thinking much about getting old then. Over the years, we’ve become, um, old friends, and I received regular updates over the time that Ted spent researching, reporting and grappling with “Shock of Gray,” so when we sat down for this interview, I teased him a bit about how he’d gotten old while writing the book. “Yeah, I got old at about half the rate of everyone I was studying,” Ted joked, “because I was rejuvenating myself cognitively and learning new lessons all along the way.”
If you know Ted, through his books, newspaper and magazine articles, television appearances and public-speaking engagements, you know he’s only half-joking. Though Ted’s body may hide it, his mind is in Olympic Gold Medal condition, thanks to the extraordinary exercise he puts it through.
While much of the punditry twitters its time away these days, Ted’s an old-fashioned intellectual: he thinks big.
We live in a society that’s obsessed with youth culture, but according to you, the whole world is getting old. What’s the story?
For me it all started in a place that’s probably more obsessed than any place has been with youth culture, and that’s China today. My last book “China, Inc.” took me to these fabulous cities in China, some of which are growing by a million people a year. And if you go to them, you think, ‘Wow, this country has an endless supply of people 18 to 35 and they are all coming to the cities, and they’re all busily employed, and some of them are in sharp suits and walking fast and on the make.’ And others have very different fates: they fill factories. I would go to China, and there would be factory lines in the places I’d visit and they’d have 10,000 or 20,000 young people working the factories. I actually brought my daughter, Elly, with me on one of those trips, and we walked in and it blew our socks off—just to see a factory where the most important thing about a worker in those factories was their youth. And that seemed to be the gate in which they had to walk through, and if they were too old, they didn’t get hired. And it started me thinking about what was it about this place that brings all these young people together, because when you leave and you go to the countryside of China, all you see are old people. In many of the villages, there really are—it’s not an overstatement—no young people at all. And because my China investigation was about globalization, I started to think about whether there was an age component to globalization. Was there something about the way money was pouring into China from the aging countries of the world, the other places in East Asia, which are big investors in China—Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Korea… from Europe, we saw giant German factories in China filled with young people, and from North America. They’ve spent between a trillion and two trillion dollars building an urban industrial goliath in China filled almost exclusively with young people. And I thought, ‘Huh, this is interesting.’ Globalization really is, in one way, creating a market for young people. Or maybe the market for young people that exists in China is urging on globalization. And that started me thinking about it, because China is one of the most rapidly aging countries in the world, and yet it sees its key to success as providing the rest of the world with hundreds of millions of young people.
So how did you go from China to a global project? How did it become a book for you?
I started asking about these themes when I traveled around the US talking to people first about China. And I would go into communities where I was invited in by the economic development council to give a view on the future as it related to globalization, and I would say, ‘You know, I’m thinking about this issue on age.’ And I would go to an industrial center in the Midwest, a Rockford, or some part of metro Detroit or Indiana or Wisconsin—I went to Milwaukee several times—and they would say, ‘Yes, I think what you’re saying describes our situation exactly. We have an aging workforce. Employers are interested in figuring out a way to deal with the aging workforce.’ In many ways, they were looking for a way to replace the aging workforce, and that was coincident with their desire to move production and move supplies overseas. Once I started asking in the US about Asian populations, the issues just grew. It became more than just an issue on the shopfloor; it became a community-wide issue. What were towns and cities going to do with their aging populations? How were they going to keep themselves young? And one of the places I thought would be very interesting to go to would be the oldest community in the United States. My parents had been wintering in Sarasota, Florida, which happens to be the oldest metro area in the United States. And I thought, ‘Well, what’s going on in a community that’s already old?’ If you look at the demographics of the United States, most cities are going to be significantly older over the next thirty years, but Sarasota is there today. So then I went there, and I discovered something pretty wonderful, which was that their economic development was really designed around them being the oldest place in the United States. How could they make that into an industry? How could they make that into an economic engine? So I had this contrasting view, in the United States. I had these cities that were growing older, seemingly against their will, and you had this other city that was growing older as an act of will. And then I just started looking at their dynamics. And then once you go deep into any of those communities, all kinds of issues spring up, because you start talking not just to the businesses, but in my case, I was very interested in talking to the social workers, to the social agencies, to the charities, and many things unfold. You think that they’re all there to serve the older communities but, really, one of the best ways that they serve the older communities is not just by providing services, but letting people in late life provide services to others. And that was also quite fascinating.
The way I had it framed in my head was, ‘This is a huge topic. It’s in all of our views. It’s womb to tomb and around the world.’ And it was very, very hard for me as an investigator to put boundaries around the topic, because it’s economic, it’s social, it’s political. So I thought, one way I could do that was, rather than isolate each of these topics and describe them from birth to death and describe the topic around the world, I would actually go to the places that were experiencing the age change already, and look at how those places were dealing with those. So the book, about half of the book is organized geographically, and I visited Japan, I visited China, several communities around the United States, and southern Europe.
How long did the book take you to write, and did you run into any kind of complications or challenges along the way that were really interesting?
The book took around three years to write. And when I say it took that long to write, it really took that long to write it twice. As I mentioned, I had instincts about globalization and the world economy and what was happening to older workers, which was that they were being devalued in aging economies in the developed world and being traded for younger workers in the places that were willing to provide them like China. But when the economy was very, very strong before the end of 2007, the message from many of the companies and communities that I talked to was very, very different. It was, ‘Our baby boomers are prosperous, they’re doing great, they have good savings, the stock market’s at all-time highs, their houses have more value than they’ve ever had, people are feeling quite wealthy, individually.’ And companies were afraid that all of these boomers were going to walk out of the offices, out of the factories, take all of their hundreds of millions of years of work experience with them, and there would be this gaping hole in the corporate world. Then the recession came. And the recession revealed more of the world that was, based on my hunch when I was reporting in China. All of a sudden, this world in which companies would do anything to hold on to their older workers turned into a world where they would do almost anything to change their workforce so that it was younger and lower cost. And what happened was that older people, who everyone expected to retire before official retirement, were now saying, ‘Well, we think we’re gonna have to work seven years longer than retirement, because the value of our house is down, our investment in our retirement funds is way down—halved in some cases—if we are pensioned from a public entity, we don’t know whether that public entity will be solvent.’ It was a flip-flop. Before people needed the older people to stay on longer and the older people wanted to retire, and now, in the new reality, older people wanted to work longer and the workforce didn’t want them as much. I had to rethink all of those economic themes. But I think it really bared a world which was quite in line with what my impulse was when I was looking at the situation globally.
It was challenging and inspiring—both. It was challenging because when you’re writing about age, around the world, one of the things you have to deal with is going to some of the world’s greatest places—Japan, Spain, Florida—and spend all of your time in retirement communities. Another thing is, of course, that you feel the ticks and tocks in your personal life much more intensely. And that happened to me. Along the way, I was learning all of the things that seemed to me to keep people vital, into later life, and I wasn’t very good on many of those scores at all. I’m not a great exerciser, I’m kind of a glutton, I don’t sleep as much as I should; I do stay cognitively fit, I think, but I also enjoy a stressful life, which is a killer. I don’t have a dog, which you should have in order to live for a long time. And I started thinking about all these things. But there was an even more profound change for me which was, how I saw the world every time I walked out the door or looked out the window, which was that it was inescapable: how the dynamics of an aging world, particularly a world in which people were living longer, and had to have the means to live longer, and in which people had smaller families, was affecting virtually every walk of life, every relationship I knew, everyone I talked to, and it seemed to me that this was hidden in plain view, but now I had the goggles to see how it was working in every walk of life.
There are very few places that are not aging. Aging itself is defined in a few different ways. One of them is that the median age is going up, and the median age of the world is going up: it’ll be ten years older than it is now in the year 2050. And that happens for two reasons. That happens because people are living longer. In the developed world, we’ve added one-and-a-half to two years of life for every decade that we’ve lived over most of the last century. And the even bigger cause is that the average age goes up because people have fewer children. When you have children, of course, you change the math in how you calculate the average age of a population because you have more young people coming into the family. But when you have fewer children, the average age can go up very, very quickly. For example, Japan was one of the youngest countries in the world in the late forties, early 1950s. Tokyo was the youngest big city in the world. And then the Japanese decided that they were going to change the course of their economy radically. That required urbanization. They changed their regime on birth control and abortion, and the family size in Japan went down—it’s about less than a fifth today than what it was half a century ago. And that happened so radically, so dramatically, that Japan is now the oldest country in the world. And it’s true that Japanese people live long, but the real driver here is the fact that they have so few children. And when you have few children, you get population aging in the other way, which is a measure. Not just the median age—how old is the age at which half the population is older and half the population is younger—but you have a bigger elder share, which is, pick any older group age, say 65 to 75, how fast is that group growing compared to some younger share, age 5 to 15—pick an age under the median. And if the cohorts above the median age are growing faster—and they are, they’re growing geometrically—if those are growing faster, than you have an aging society.
I can’t say whether it’s a good thing on that score or not, environmentally. There’s a calculation in the book that if people add to their life span the same amount of years that they’ve added in the last century in the century to come, the current population will live on the planet another 200 billion years. That’s how many additional life-years our planet has to support. That’s kind of scary. It makes you start thinking we need another planet. On the other hand, when population stabilizes, you can plan for resources, you can plan for ways not to outrun your resources. And, you know there are all kinds of wrinkles to this: what are the public health aspects? Some things I talk about in the book are the public-health aspects of an aging population. The book has many stories about people who are dealing with care, in a family where people are living far longer than anyone expected family members to live longer. But when you weigh it all together, is it a good thing or is it a bad thing? Ask yourself, what are the things that you want most for yourself? They’re probably similar to things that mankind has wanted most for itself since the beginning of scientific experimentation or spiritualism. People want to live long lives and healthy lives. And we have given ourselves that over time, especially over the last century. And you could take any of the disadvantages that we’ll face because we’re living longer and healthier, and they probably don’t weigh up, I mean they probably don’t outweigh the benefits that we have because we’re living longer and healthier. We just have to figure out how to manage life now that we are living longer and healthier.
You tell a surprising number of stories in the book that involve an indigenous population that was somehow affected by immigrants. Is there a flow of human beings across country lines that are a response to aging?
Well if you think about how aging changes the commerce of the world, it changes not just the way goods move because things are made in different places; it doesn’t just change the way money moves because people are investing in different ways; it also changes the way people move. And people move to fill in the kind of demographic needs of places elsewhere. That’s a kind of economic opportunity, and it’s one of the chief economic opportunities of the world. Spain is one of the oldest countries in the world—it’s one of the contestants that vies with Japan, Greece, Italy, for the oldest crown. In the year 2000, they had virtually no immigration at all. Spain was the country that sent Spaniards to the rest of aging Europe to work, in the way that maybe Latin Americans come to the United States today. But their population did get older quite rapidly. The dynamic is explained in quite some detail in the book. So, what did they need to fill in the gap for what they needed because their workforce was aging, their workforce professionalizing, in ways that required far more years of education? They became a magnet for migrants, from North Africa and from South America, and now from subcontinental Asia, and this has changed the demographic of Spain a little bit, not too much because Spain is a big country, more than 40 million people, but it’s changed the demographic dramatically of some of the countries that it draws from. So in Barcelona alone there are about half a million Ecuadorians; maybe there are a million Ecuadorians all throughout Spain. They’ve come to Spain in the prime of life. There are really only two places that Ecuadorians emigrate to in this world: one is Spain, and the other is the New York metropolitan area. But one in eight Ecuadorians lives outside the country and has gone somewhere else to work, and they leave in the prime of life from when they’re 18 to 35 years old. This has left a huge hole in the population of Ecuador. It’s a political issue, it’s made it into presidential politics. There’s a campaign in Ecuador called the “Welcome Home” campaign that tries to lure people from abroad, back home, to bring back the skills they’ve gained, bring the education they’ve gained. In Spain, they educate all immigrants who come in; if they want free education, they get it. And it’s been a hard sell in Ecuador. They’re really not coming back, they’re not coming home. The aging of Spain in this way has contributed to the aging of Ecuador.
Do you see this aging as a trend that you’re observing or is it a problem? In other words, is it just a fact of life and we need to know how to deal with it, or is it creating a problem for the world, and if it is creating a problem, what should we be doing?
Aging itself isn’t a problem. The problem is not reckoning with aging. The solution to any problems we have with aging might not be making your population younger. There are all kinds of schemes in the world to make populations younger. The solution really is, how do you organize society in a way to make the most out of people over their long term. The book is light on policy recommendations because the world of policy as it relates to older populations, to industrial workforces, to education of the young, is so diverse that I felt in writing a global book, I could describe the situation, but if I got into the minutiae of policy, I would get lost in it, the reader would get lost in it. So there are some discussions about policies that I think have made a big difference in some of these places, but I don’t really go into the details of every social security system or healthcare system or anything like that. And, believe me, there’s voluminous literature on that, and if you come to my office, you will see the hundreds of boxes of information on this stuff that I’ve gathered. But what the book does, is it allows you to see how a country or a place that doesn’t reckon with an older population will have solutions enforced on it—sometimes by the marketplace, sometimes by the failure of policy. You’ll see how families may not realize their future as they go forward, as the pyramid of their family has inverted, whereas formerly they had lots of young people supporting older people in the family, now they have older people supported by fewer young people, and how communities organize around that. What the book aims to do above all is to give you the landscape of an aging world, so that you can make your own decisions as you march into this world both as a person who will age inevitably but also as a person who is marching into a world that will be older. But also, how do you work as a neighbor, worker, citizen of your country and citizen of the world?
You did a whole book about China, and then rather than doing another book about China, which some might have done, you did a big section of this book on China, and I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on whether China will end its one-child policy, which has been such a long and controversial subject?
I thought about doing another book on China, but China really woke me up to this topic, and I thought China would have a part in it. And one of the things about writing a book as opposed to having written a book is that when you write a book, people tell you their story about a place, right? It’s their turn to be on stage; they give you their version of the events as they want it heard. You have to work really hard to get behind the scenes. But actually, for me, on the China beat, though the book was fascinating to work on, and I got a great basis for what I would come to learn about China, in some ways, the more interesting stage for me in the China project was after I wrote the book and people no longer came to me with just their stories, but they came to me with their problems. Why are they going to China? What are the issues they have when they go to China? And this opened up the world to this demographic issue. One of the things that people talk to you a lot about, whether they’re a family in China or whether they’re employing Chinese people, is the one-child policy. It creates a certain mentality among the people you hire, and it creates a certain desperation in the families that only have one child. But it also creates an atmosphere in China in which the children become kind of super-capable people. One of the most fascinating parts for me to report was going into the rationale of why China developed the one-child policy. People think it was a move to stave off a Malthusian nightmare, in which there would be too many Chinese people chasing too few resources and it would be mass starvation. That really was not in the mind of the Chinese leadership when they created the one-child policy, and I talk about how really, what the one-child policy aimed to do was replicate the economic miracle elsewhere in East Asia. It’s a dramatic story, it’s a story with a lot of tragedy attached to it and a lot of success. But what happens when a country has only one child is that the demands on that one child are great, and that child is prepared by the family to take on those demands. That means that grandparents and parents invest more money in the education of one child than they would in the education of each of many children. So the children become better educated, and the Chinese university system now graduates more people than the Indian and US university systems put together. The workers themselves feel enormous pressure because they have to support all these older people when they enter the workforce, they have to support their parents who are often pushed out of work in their mid-forties, and they have to support their grandparents who might be in their sixties or seventies. But at the same time, it relieves China from having to support a much vaster population of young people, and China likes this. It gives it its window into development. So when you think about whether China will reverse the one-child policy, you have to weigh it against the gains it’s achieved in doing this. It’s achieved an educated workforce, and it’s achieved a workforce that’s not so burdened by its own children. And just compare China to other East Asian economies: they don’t have the one-child policy in Korea or Japan. They don’t need it, because their birthrate is even lower than China with the one-child policy. And if you go into Chinese cities like Shanghai, Shanghai’s not even at one child per two families. The one-child policy’s not aggressive population control in Shanghai because Shanghainese young people aren’t even halfway there. So even if they reverse the policy, it’s not going to do much to change the course of China’s population.
Do you see any great global shifts of power underway as a reflection of this aging trend? Is the West going to be diminished in its role on the world stage? Are other parts of the world going to emerge stronger?
There’s a big literature on this, and the standard view is that the aging West will lose its appetite for policing the world, for taking the younger world on, and that younger countries with huge youth bulges in the Middle East, in subcontinental Asia, will be filled with risk-taking young males who will challenge an atrophying West, and it will destabilize the world. I don’t accept that view, totally. It’s possible, this is futurism. But I think when you look at the dynamic of an aging globe, what you find is that places move into gear to age quite rapidly, and if they’re given the chance to globalize, then they urbanize, and then their birth rate gets driven down quite fast. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be unstable places in the world, but I don’t see this huge world at large which is post-counter to us. On the other hand, there is this other big challenge, and this is the challenge of where does money go in an aging society? What does it go to support? In Europe right now, countries are being torn apart politically because the demands of paying for their pension systems are so high that people are calling for radical changes in public financing, they’re calling for changes in the retirement age, they’re calling for scaling back of benefits, for different scales of benefits for different classes of workers that enter the pension systems today. All very contentious, all sending hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Europe to protest, strikes, everything. So it tells us how difficult these decisions will be to triage resources. The United States is in a little better shape. We’re a little bit younger than the East Asian countries, with the exception of China, which will be old fast but isn’t yet. We’re a little bit younger than Europe, and we have this huge strategic budget, which we’re not going to give up on any time soon. So, I don’t see, when you talk about the West–maybe you can split it up between Europe and the United States–but I don’t think our place in the world is going to diminish as a result of the aging of the planet.
One of the prevailing political notions has been that our Social Security system has been in danger of failure, and it’s been this way since I came of age in the eighties. It seems logical to some degree that retirement age should probably get older because when it was created at 65 in the 1930s, life expectancy was dramatically different, and your ability to work productively was different. Any thoughts on that?
I don’t talk about policy recommendations for Social Security in the book. But one thing Social Security tells you is what status are people when they reach retirement. And older people in America used to be the most vulnerable group to poverty. That’s shifted with the advent of Social Security. Now the most vulnerable group in the United States is young people, children, because Social Security has so dramatically changed the status of older people. But half of the people who retire in the United States retire with nothing but Social Security. Let me say that again: half of the people in the United States retire with little more than Social Security to live on. That means Social Security is the only thing standing between people, whether they retire at 62 or 65, it’s the only thing standing between half of those people and poverty. So you could push the retirement age up, but then you might push the poverty rolls up, too. The other thing you have to think about is how the Social Security system would deal with a delayed retirement. Right now, Social Security is adjusted actuarially, so that if you retire later, you get more money. So it doesn’t provide any fiscal relief if you keep the actuarial component of Social Security built in because people retire later, but you just give them more money every month when they retire. So the only way to really make a difference in Social Security is to postpone it a couple years, and give people what in effect is a benefit cut when they’re older. That’s very politically explosive. But you might need the moral leadership to make that happen. Figure out how to plug the poverty gap by creating a better, older workforce, which is more valuable in the workplace and regarded as more valuable in the workplace, and selling Americans on the idea that they shouldn’t be retired for as many years as they work. You know, if somebody reaches age 65, they have a very, very good chance at making it to 95. In fact, if you and your wife both make it to 60, there’s a fifty-percent chance that one of you will make it to 95. I think that’s something we can do with the right kind of leadership, a moral leadership in this country, which is to say no one hoped for a society that’s designed so that you work fewer years than you don’t work, when you add up school and retirement together.
When the retirement age was set at 65, a lot more of the workforce was doing manual labor that required certain physical attributes to be able to work to a certain age. Given that so much of what we do now is desk work, computer work, intellectual work, you’d think there might be an argument that we could work longer. Is that the case?
Yeah, I think that is the case. You know, the older population—let’s take age 55 up—is a very heterogenous population. You could take any age cohort from 55 up, virtually, and you will find more differences in that group than you will in any age group that is younger. There are differences in health, there are differences in economics, there are big differences in education, race, class. This is a big group, so it’s hard to generalize about them. Some will be very willing and able to work, and lots of older people want nothing more than to work—maybe not full time, maybe they don’t want their full salary—but they want to stay active in the workforce. But also bad things start happening to people at age 60. And there are lots of people who don’t work. One reason people take early retirement is because they sense that something’s going wrong with them. So any policy that kind of designs the workplace as a place which is filled with more people in late career, past traditional retirement, also should be designed so that those people who become dependent earlier in their old age are also taken care of.
The saddest part of your book is this idea that you’ve got this population that’s living longer, that is much more vigorous at an older age than it was in the past, but at the same time, you have this culture, especially in the workplace, that’s pushing them out faster and making them feel less useful or less that there’s a place for them. Is there something that can be done to address that? Is that a policy issue, or is that just one of those things we have to look at and say, ‘Yeah, it’s tough’?
There are some heartbreaking stories in my book about people who have been on this journey, but a few of them have great endings in which people have really turned their lives around and kind of laughed at the people who devalued them from the workplace or kicked them out, and actually late in life are making more money than they ever made before because they looked around at their life and said, ‘I have a network. I have skills. Let me cobble them together for myself and see what happens.’ And had good success. You asked me, how did the book change me? One of the ways it changed me was thinking about not just the policies that we might have to have a more friendly workplace for older people, but really what do you have to do to yourself, for yourself, in order to make you a valuable worker over your life course. And it really requires that you put yourself in a position where your cumulative knowledge makes you more valuable over time. And that means not just by being in a place and accumulating knowledge; that means pumping yourself full of knowledge as you go along. And one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that we have these elaborate programs so that people can save money and get tax breaks for their children’s education, and some of those you can apply to yourself, but they’re not advertised. I think one thing we really need is for people to think about the savings in their life—not just going for comfortable old age, but going for things that improve your place in the workplace over life. How can you invest in your education? Should there be some sort of pot of money that is unleashed periodically from your savings so that you get refreshed and more valuable, so that when you get to a magic year—62 or 65—people say, ‘Wow, we need this person. He’s got skills that took that long to accumulate and we can’t replace them.’
Do you think we’re going to see some shifts in our cultural obession with youth? Are we gonna see culture geared toward 50 year olds and culture geared toward 60, or do you think we’re stuck like this forever, regardless of the fact that there are so many more older people?
Well we’re not stuck with anything. Really the culture we have is the culture we make. And, certainly one of the goals of the book is that we make the culture that values everybody, and the way you do that is by seeing the contributions that each age group can make to one another. I think whether we create a youth culture that is more dominant or less dominant really, in some ways, depends on whether we start thinking of youth as a scarce resource. And in the book, I argue that, in some ways, the marketplace already regards youth as a scarce resource and makes it super valuable, or whether we think of life as a prelude to a more valuable stage of life which benefits from the compounding of knowledge, the acquisition of wisdom and, in which people can remain vital.
Science plays a role in your book. How did you get into that part of it?
Well I didn’t think I could write a book about aging without explaining to people why nature and science are your partners, both in creating your future self and creating future society. So, one of the most sobering chapters in the book for some readers—but I think it’s one of the most entertaining for them, too—has been a chapter in the book in which I walk through, decade by decade, all the things that can happen to your body, and what is the likelihood of these things happening to you as you get older. So you get a sense of why this heterogeneity in an older population unfolds, because there’s this giant matrix of things that can and cannot happen, and they relate to each other. And when you think about an older population in general, you have to think about the things that will happen to them naturally, how science and healthcare can help them cope. Half of the people over 60 live with two chronic conditions: sometimes it slows you down and incapacitates you, but sometimes great medicine means that two chronic conditions are irrelevant to your happiness and abilities in life. And then I do speculate on what can happen in a world where science really does deliver longer life, but where the costs are high for that. That was quite interesting for me to write, and the hook on that are some experiments where you need the vitality of another human being in order for you to stay vital yourself. This is science that already exists. We already live in a world where organs are traded freely on the black market, and I go into detail, some gruesome detail on that.
What’s next for you?
My hope whenever I finish a big project is to, now, having learned whatever I’ve learned, go into overdrive and learn even more. And this is a topic in which you ask people one or two questions and they start telling you all kinds of things you didn’t know. So I think in that way, I better stay open to what people tell me interests them about this book. And I think, judging from what I know already from readers including you, people do talk about it once they read it, and I love that. But I am thinking about some other topics that have come out of my research so far, and they might appear as articles, they might appear as cocktail conversation, they might appear as books. One of the things I’m really interested in from this topic is, how do people acquire knowledge over time, and where does it come from? How do we get emotionally smarter, technologically smarter? How do we improve our judgement over time? And this is a very, very key issue if you’re thinking about a post-industrial society which is moving towards a very dominantly service economy, because instead of making things, we’re going to be making ideas, and if you want to be making ideas that are valuable to people across your lifetime, you better be a better idea generator as you get older and older.
Is there anything that you want to add that we haven’t discussed?
One thing that’s hard to capture in an interview is really the depth of story that’s in the book. You know, the book is a nexus of stories of people who are living in communities that are experiencing this change ahead of the rest of the world. And one of the really astonishing things about those stories is, if you listen to people who feel that their life isn’t to them all that exceptional, but then you start talking to them about what they’ve witnessed over their life, and who they connect up with, they are connecting with other people whose stories are told in the book. So, you meet a Moroccan who is living in Spain, and her life connects to an Ecuadorian, and then you talk to the Ecuadorian, and her life connects to somebody from Vilnius, and that person connects to a person from Mongolia, and they’re all there to serve somebody who is aging in the Middle West. And what you realize from all of the stories is not just the landscape of an aging world and how it exists locally and around you, but how aging one place is really a global project, and it is something that you may feel you go through alone, but it really connects you to a much broader world in ways that are surprising.
I would say, for me, one of the really stunning things was going to Sarasota, Florida, looking at the community that is probably the best place in the world to retire, the most active socially. Sarasota has more not-for-profits chartered in its community per capita than any other community in the United States. The volunteerism is very high, the willingness to give to young children is very high. And yet, even when you go into an aging community, you feel how older people still judge people who are older than them, still look at people who are younger than them—the 80-year-olds looking at the 65-year-olds—and feeling that there’s a generation gap. And, you know, this was quite remarkable to me. In an older community, if you want to think about the value of youth, here’s a town where people show up—they’re really not expected—no one wants them to talk about the things that were in the life that they left; they have to have a new life there, so they start some activity or start to volunteer. It usually centers around young people. But then you go to the organizations in town that serve older people who are struggling, and they can’t get the volunteers, they can’t get the money from the local donors who are so generous with the young. And I think this is one of the things we face in an older world, which is that even if we’re in it, even if we’re in the heart of it, it’s still very, very hard to see. And if I’ve accomplished anything, it’s to get everybody to see this world that we’re in.
I’m going to retire where my friends are. That is the number one way to prolong your life, is to have a social network of people that are dear to you, that keep you engaged, who love you and who you can love. And probably I’ll end up staying close to home, and try and talk my friends into some warm-weather vacations.
Ted C. Fishman will discuss “Shock of Gray” November 17, 6pm, at The Harold Washington Library Center, 400 South State, in a free event co-sponsored by the Chicago Public Library, Newcity and the Seminary Co-op Bookstores.