This past week the e-zine Quartz had an article titled “There is no such thing as old age”. To that, I say hogwash. But they do have a point, and it is one that has implications for Rotary and its membership, a topic I have reflected upon repeatedly over the past few months.
The report by Cassie Werber describes The Longevity Forum, a conference hosted by the Wellcome Collection. Members of “The 100 Year Life Panel”, named after the book The 100-Year Life by Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton attempt to make the point that “Longer life is becoming part of the fabric of society across the world”. They claim we need to rethink the idea of “old age” as a time of infirmity and dependence which makes no sense in a society where people work into their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
Scott and Gratton want to reorder our life into what I will call “career” and “alternative lifetime experiences.” They envision us having the ability to move from one stage to the other in a seamless flow as our life needs change. Such a nirvana, I would suggest, is a couple of centuries in the future.
However, the idea of what I will call a ‘Third Lifetime” is already here. Rotary recognised that fact years ago when they changed the rules to permit retired people to stay in the organisation.
The 100-Year Life is definitely upon us. My club’s oldest member is in his 90’s. We have members in their 80’s. Three of us will join them in 2019. One is still working in his career and has no plans to stop.
Our District has a club where all but one member is retired.
If we divide our 100-year life into 20-40-40, then our first lifetime is an age of schooling which is work, for which neoliberal capitalist society reluctantly pays for the earliest years but demands payment after the first 14 years. Our second lifetime is the age of the career where work generates money and if we plan wisely sets us up for our third lifetime.
For most of history very few even made it into a third lifetime. However, advances during the 20th Century reached a tipping point where the traditional population pyramid was turned on its head and is now overwhelming society with its implications.
In-the-meantime Rotary is redefining itself to try and reach those in the first two decades of their second-lifetime phase. Rotary should be doing more research to reach out to those in the third-lifetime phase. They should have just as sophisticated messaging for this cohort as they have for twenty-to-forty-year-olds.
The Wellcome Collection is right. Those sixty to 100 in age should not be consigned to a bracket traditionally reserved for people with infirmities and in need of care, however, neither should they ignore their special health and social needs, especially the issues of isolation and loneliness for it is in those overlapping spheres where Rotary clubs can be most useful.
The headline “There is no such thing as old age,” is just plain wrong. We may still be people who have built up skills through a long working life who have the energy for new challenges, but we also get reminded daily that our bodies are dying.
I joined Rotary at age 70. I got called the “Energiser Bunny.”. I am still the oldest president in the history of the club, and the club is almost as old as I am. But every day, I take nine pills, (the average for a person over sixty is 5). Each day I put on compression socks and orthotics in my shoes. Each night I sleep with a CPAP machine. And as I write this, I now use a special set of glasses because cataracts have started. My skin is wrinkled and full of all sorts of spots which were never there when I was in the first two lifetime periods.
And since 2011, when my wife of 47 years died, I’m also alone again. Loneliness is real, and isolation is something against which I have to fight. Rotary has been a godsend during this period and will continue to be.
Check out this graphic recently produced by the Retired Teachers’ of Ontario on the effects of social isolation. Being a Rotarian can make you healthy and reduce healthcare costs at the same time.
I have begun to think Rotary might be wise to promote the creation of new clubs devoted entirely to this third-lifetime generation. In cities, new clubs are forming made up of the members under forty. How would a club of 70 plus membership restructure itself? I know I am no good at recruitment but if I had to recruit for a club of elders would I be more successful? What might be the effect on longtime clubs if the most senior members were to coalesce into a new citywide club and return clubs to a lower average age? Would those clubs have more success at recruiting younger members?
Rotary has broadened the membership rules. We have satellite clubs. Could a small group of 80 and ninety-year-olds meet at the local coffee shop twice a week be a satellite or for that matter if a club of 8 can still be a club, it begs the question why is 15 the number a club needs to be chartered? Why not four, after all that was the size of the first club.
For the first time in the history of humankind, we have a geriatric generation larger than the generation created by our children. Like the woman standing on her hands, in the feature photo, we are discovering strengths in this new cohort of the aged we could never imagine. It is time we gave them more thought.