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The New Aging

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from the magazine

The New Aging

Modern societies are transforming our understanding of life’s later stages—for better and for worse. Winter 2021
The Social Order

The historian Pierre Goubert tells us that in 1654, the year of Louis XIV’s coronation, life expectancy in France was 25. At the center of every village was a cemetery; death defined life. What a contrast with our day, when existence is no longer brief, as ephemeral as a passing train, to recall a metaphor from Maupassant. For us, death no longer lies at the heart of existence; it is the terminal point that we attempt by every means to put off, even to ignore, though it still terrifies us. It is the supreme obscenity.

For more than a century, the human race has been staying around longer than expected, at least in developed countries, where life expectancy has risen 25 or 30 years—except in Russia, where health is undermined by alcoholism and poor health care, and in the United States, where, in certain Appalachian counties, the white working class, haunted by social despair and the opioid crisis, now has a life expectancy below Bangladesh’s, according to economist Angus Deaton.

This extension represents immense progress, since it is accompanied by a delay in the onset of old age, which two centuries ago began at 35. When Honoré de Balzac in 1842 evoked a 30-year-old woman, he described a person already aware of the shadows of autumn and ready to leave behind the life of love in order to enter old age. For us, this is a truly strange attitude; beyond 50 years or so, the human animal enters a kind of holding pattern: a person is no longer young but not yet really old, experiencing a kind of weightlessness. Once time was a movement toward an end, oriented toward spiritual perfection or fulfillment. Childhood tended toward adolescence, and adolescence toward adulthood, which in turn flowed gently toward middle and old age. But now an unprecedented phase is opening up between these last two periods.

This phase is a kind of reprieve that leaves life open like a swinging door. It transforms everything—relations among generations, social-welfare finances, the cost of elder care, and our attitudes about work and romantic love. If aging is to be assigned a place on the calendar, becoming little by little a figure of the past, we now refuse to accept our status as caught up in the common condition. I am of a certain age, but I am not necessarily identified by it; I note a gap between the images associated with my official condition and what I feel. When this gap becomes massive, as is happening today—when a Dutch citizen, aged 69, sues the state to change his official age because he feels like a man of 49 and is subject to discrimination in the workplace as well as in his love life (notably, when he goes on Tinder)—then we are experiencing a slippage of worldviews, for better and for worse.

We no longer act our age because age no longer makes us or unmakes us; it is simply one variable, among others. We no longer want to be fixed to our date of birth—or, for that matter, to our sex, skin color, or status. Men want to be women, or the reverse, or neither one nor the other; white people consider themselves black, old people are babes. Everywhere the human condition escapes us, as we enter the era of liquid generations and identities. Today, many yearn to be free of the yoke of age and to benefit from the suspension between middle and old age, seeking to invent a new art of living.

This might be called the Indian summer of life. The baby-boomer generation was a pioneer in this regard: it created the path that it is now following. It reinvented youth, and now it thinks that it can reinvent old age. It is in this interval after 50, when one is neither young nor old but still teems with appetites, that we confront the great questions of the human condition so acutely: Do we want to live long or intensely, to start over or to take a new turn? How are we to look on remarriage or a new career? What gives us the strength to press on despite bitterness or satiety, and what motivates us every morning to start afresh? This is why late middle age is the philosophic age par excellence, whether we like it or not, because it forces each of us, man or woman, to reconsider the great intellectual problems.

We have seen the rise of a new category: “seniors,” a Latin term recovered to capture those who are graying but active, in good physical condition and often financially better off than the rest of the population. This is the time when many, having raised their children and completed their conjugal duties, divorce or remarry, dreaming of a new spring in the autumn. In other words, there is no longer one time of old age but several, and the only one now where the word really fits is immediately before death. This reprieve brings with it both passion and anxiety. What are we to do with these 20 or 30 extra years? The time available shrinks and the possibilities become more limited, but there can still be discovery, surprises, shattering loves.

At least two models are available in our individualistic society: either we rediscover at 60 the dreams of adolescence; or we decide that the game is basically up and join the folks playing bingo while waiting for their soup. On one side, we see the tribe of retired people on vitamin supplements, often in good physical shape. They usually belong to the upper middle class or are rich; they want to sink their teeth into life and display fierce energy at a time when their predecessors were often senile or bedridden. On the other side, we see faded people, resigned to their fate and determined to withdraw from the tumult.

The emergence of Viagra, along with hormonal treatments for women, offers intoxicating powers to people in their sixties. This has unsettled relations between the sexes, often accentuating the subordination of women. How many aging spouses are separated when one of them, breaking the truce of abstinence, rediscovers a taste for sexual adventure? It’s worth noting that the two great ages of divorce in Europe are between 20 and 30 and between 50 and 70: in the first, young couples, married too soon, break up after discovering their incompatibility; in the second, older spouses take off on a new adventure, unhindered by the fact that their standard of living may fall or that they might end up alone. Freedom and the wish once again to control their own destinies take precedence over the risks involved.

Illustrations by Sol Cotti

The eagerness of seniors, looking to roll the dice one last time, to get involved in sports, travel, work, and saturnalia of the flesh stems from the new strategic depth regarding time now available to us. In Europe, the average age of maternity has reached 30, and the locking of the womb at menopause might one day be pushed to the age of 60. (The world’s oldest mother is an Indian who gave birth at 74, through in-vitro fertilization.) One may find this a pathetic vision. Still, to reproach the elderly for their misplaced appetites, for wanting to take on new things, to continue to work, is to condemn them to an anticipated death, and to condemn one’s own future at the same age. Isn’t there a certain beauty—even if the body is weakening—in defying the old temporal order, outflanking one’s destiny and allowing oneself, at least for a while, an extra portion of intoxication, of sensations, of encounters? Life is perpetual uncertainty, an uncertainty that, as long as it lasts, proves that we are alive.

A significant drawback nevertheless remains. It is not youth that science and technology have extended—it is old age. The true miracle would be to sustain us until the threshold of death in a state and with the appearance of an adult of 30 or 40. Though research on life extension is working on this, the goal remains remote. Our added years can sometimes be a poisoned gift; we live longer but sick. Medicine, from this perspective, becomes a machine to produce disability and dementia. The extra years allotted to us can be years with worn-down bodies. We would so like to keep our favorite face, the one we would choose out of all those we have passed through over the decades—or get it back with a stroke of the scalpel.

Classically, philosophy made old age a synonym for wisdom, the great time of peace and serenity, when the essential was extracted from the optional. The withering of the body left only what counted: greatness of spirit and the soul’s beauty. With the extension of life’s duration, this model was obscured. There is a newly active life, for some older people—but also, for others, a weakened existence that we turn away from like a ghost, the specter of ourselves as aged and bedridden, waiting for extinction. As for the wisdom of the aged, we often suspect that this is another name for resignation to an impoverishment of life and relegation to special elder homes with fancy names, little more than medicalized places of death.

Yet it would be nice gradually to get over the excessive appetite for earthly pleasures, to dedicate oneself to meditation and study, and to pronounce oracles in the form of definitive maxims, thus preparing oneself gently for the Great Departure. Sophocles, at 80, if we are to believe Plato, was content finally to be liberated from the cruel burden of desire, an experience analogous to that of a people who overthrow a tyrant, or of an emancipated slave. It is not clear that such a liberation is attractive to some of our contemporaries. It may be, in fact, that the secret of happiness in later life consists in precisely the opposite approach: cultivate all one’s passions up to the very end, renounce no pleasure, no curiosity, but continue to the end to work, to learn, to travel, remaining open to the world and to others.

Is to philosophize also to learn to die, as Montaigne said? All classical thought until the Enlightenment considered meditation on death the very meaning of existence. But is this not today a strange recommendation, even for those who care more about flourishing in this world than obsessing about the next? Dying, alas, is not something we need to learn; it happens without our help, except in the case of suicide. Nothing prepares us for death: even the most austere ascetic and the most ardent believer are surprised when the Reaper comes for them. What matters, perhaps, is not to learn to die but not to die while one is still alive—not to become a zombie, going through the motions of daily life, without soul or vitality. What matters is to be alive until the last day.

“I am still surprised in the U.S. when I see waiters and waitresses spryly at their posts, despite wrinkles and gray hair.”

To go on living is to recount a list of physical disasters so obvious that it would be fastidious to list them. As the proverb says, if, after 50, you no longer hurt somewhere when you get up in the morning, then you’re dead. Illness is indeed the cost of longevity, and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s strike mostly people over 65. To age is also to put up with some pains that cannot be healed but that at least can be contained by medications. We submit to repairs, piece by piece, like an old sedan that breaks down every 100 miles but that runs again after an overhaul. Age, despite the illnesses that threaten the faltering body, is no longer a verdict, no longer the threshold beyond which a person is obsolete. Now a person can modify his fate up to the last moment.

There is joy mixed with anxiety in this experience of aging, having escaped the worst pathologies. This is the joy, however absurd, of still being alive, of inhabiting one’s body, however worn down. For now, the transhumanist dream of immortality or hyper-longevity remains a chimera, the preserve of a few billionaires who wish to digitize their brains or have them preserved cryogenically until science finds a way to rejuvenate our cells—despite the risk that a power failure could end the experiment, leaving those hoping for eternity to decompose as the ice melts.

As for retirement, it involves an ambiguity: though it represents a significant social achievement, it also creates the aged condition that it is supposed to relieve. Certain unpleasant tasks require an end to activities for a body worn by repetitive work. But for other, less strenuous occupations, this change of life can be a double burden: one becomes poorer while facing the troubles of aging; one is obliged to leave active life and face a reduced income. We cast off adults perfectly healthy in mind and body, who then wither after a few months of inactivity. To define a whole age group as a leisure class, limited to nothing but consumerism, was a profound mistake, brought about with the best of intentions in the aftermath of World War II. Experience and insight generally progress with the years; to keep an activity or find one is to stay connected with others, to be involved in service, to be an agent in the full sense of the term.

The United States and Europe behave very differently in this domain: in America, concern for freedom is considered much more important than the Old World’s emphasis on security. Thus, I am still surprised in the U.S. when I see waiters and waitresses spryly at their posts, despite wrinkles and gray hair. In the universities, one finds professors in their seventies and even early eighties teaching classes. The French term for retirement, retraite, is the same as the military word for “retreat”—a synonym for defeat. For many salaried employees, it indeed represents the double burden of leaving active life behind at the same time as income is reduced. The obligatory end of work in Europe for those in their sixties, with variations according to occupations, plunges us into the curse of leisure held up as a way of life. This free time is most commonly used not for cultivating interests but for self-hypnotizing in front of the screens that fill the lion’s share of one’s time.

The third age has never been the philosophic age more than it is now; it is the time when all the challenges of the human condition present themselves starkly, as they were defined by Kant: What am I allowed to hope, to know, to believe? The Indian summer of life is truly this “conversation of the soul with itself,” as Socrates described it, a condition of permanent self-examination. In this phase, one may alternate the active life with the contemplative. This is the time when we confront the tragic structure of existence without mask or blinders. “By the time we learn to live, it is already too late,” said the French poet Louis Aragon. But life is not an academic affair; it is ceaselessly adjusting the preconditions for its own learning. While youth is the time when our talents come into their own, old age can also be seen as the last phase of education rather than a time to be put out of commission. Seneca liked to say that we are learning as long as we are living, down to our last breath. We can combine the joy of teaching with the joy of being taught; we can profess truths as we ask questions, in perfect reciprocity. We still have enough time to open ourselves once again to the world, to recommit ourselves to learning, becoming a little child at an age when others once went to the grave. We are not missing real life, because there is no one true life but many interesting paths that remain to be explored.

“While youth is the time when our talents come into their own, old age can also be seen as the last phase of education.”

What is there to do once you have become yourself, once you know yourself? What could be finer than a thumb in the eye of fate, granting oneself, at least for a while, a little additional drunkenness, and more sensations and encounters? The Great Rebeginning is for many the only form of eternity that we have found. There are many lives within the life of a man or a woman, and these come together without being assimilated. What are we to think of these grandmothers who bring their grandchildren to school on a scooter, these grandpas who ride gyro-cycles and dress like young adults? We are seeing the total confusion of ages: mothers dress like their daughters and grown-ups like superannuated adolescents; each generation wants to live not the life of its ancestors but that of its descendants. We sow our wild oats despite the time on our biological clocks: young people move in together as young as 20, while their graying parents frolic in multiple affairs. The exuberance of the third age can sometimes seem laughable, or even infuriating—but would you prefer old folks slipping gradually toward the grave, closed up in specialized assisted-living homes? What is more exhilarating than to break the rules?

Will this new age be a transfigured maturity or a quavering post-adolescence? It will no doubt consist in a tension between the two. The tragedy of old age, Oscar Wilde said, is “not that one is old, but that one is young.” Even after 50, youth can be present within us as the possibility of mad exploits, diverse ecstasies. It whispers in our ears that nothing is too beautiful for us, that everything is still possible: only others’ regard, especially that of our children, brings us back to reality. On the one hand, the benefit of aging is that we often develop a growing taste for nature, for study, for silence, for meditation and contemplation, a penchant for cultivating nuance as opposed to the taste for the absolute; on the other, many experience an attachment to pleasure in all its forms that is still vivid, and even renewed. Will the new seniors be guardians of a heritage, or old satyrs, “worn out with debauchery,” in the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Narcissistic rascals like Donald Trump, or august, white-bearded ancestors?

We have not found the solution to the misfortunes of the human condition but have merely opened a little skylight in the cave. “A seventeen-year-old is not serious,” sang Arthur Rimbaud. Nor are we invariably so at 50, 60, or 70, even if conventions oblige us to appear as such. We can turn age against itself with humor and elegance, stripping it of its decrepit ornaments. At every stage in its unfolding, life can fight back against the irreversible—and this until the dive into the abyss.

Illustrations by Sol Cotti

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