How do we refer to ourselves, we who are beyond the traditional age of retirement?
For years now, I’ve puzzled and searched for a word or a phrase that seems right – one that’s true enough, easy to say, spirited and with a splash of irreverence. Most terms don’t fit my image of us. If the terms aren’t boring (senior citizen, mature), they’re generally male (codger, geezer) or derogatory (hag, battle-axe). Others feel pretentious if referring to oneself (sage, wisdom-keeper) or are just too sweet (golden-ager).
In a 2011 talk at Town Hall, Mary Catherine Bateson gave me some of my first solid insights into how to think about this phase of life. Almost everyone after age 50 has some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I can name at least one in my life, more if I count near misses. On average we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. The U.S. instituted its retirement plan in 1935 and set the age at 65 when average life expectancy in the United States was 61.7 years. Today, for a woman my age (I’m 72), life expectancy is 86.5 years – not quite 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years yet either. In addition, many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson stressed, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”
If we do live into these extra years, the big question is, what are we going to do with the time? Society isn’t organized to know what to do with us. We hardly know how to refer to this phase or what it’s for. I’m eager to help figure out what this age means, but we need a new word. For now, I’m calling us “wise-agers,” accent on the first syllable.
I mused on the question of terminology in “Gee, you look great!” – a short piece that was prompted by memories of a friend, Helen Gurvich. There I made a short list of nouns, adjectives, and phrases that have been used to describe us, and I included a comment from a friend: “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves recycled teenagers.”
Wise-agers have many decades of experience to stand on. The time we have now gives us a chance to reflect on what we’ve learned, to share it, to mix it up with what we learn from younger people, and to act with the stamina and energy our relative health gives us. Especially given the times we live in, our world needs every source of human energy, knowledge, and action it can get.
Many remarkable people provide inspiration for how these wise-ager years can be lived. One is Jini Dellaccio, a remarkable woman and photographer whose life and work frame a project aimed to enhance the ability of wise-agers to continue as engaged, contributing members of the community – the Jini Dellaccio Project. There are others. One among them is Helen Gurvich, mentioned earlier. And another, Anne Gerber – a hero and close friend of mine until she died in 2005 – showed me how a wise-ager life could be lived. She was proof, for instance, that we don’t have to choose between art that matters and politics that matter or between a love of nature and a life of ideas. From her too I learned the simple joy of walking on the beach in the rain.
Thinking back to the wise-ager definition, my favorite root of the word may be wiseacre. I like the edge of sassiness or eccentricity it adds. Defined as “one who pretends to knowledge or cleverness, an “upstart,” or “smarty pants,” wiseacre was the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day on August 5, 2012. Merriam-Webster says,
Given the spelling and definition of “wiseacre,” you might guess that the word derives from the sense of wise as in “insolent” or “fresh” – the sense that gives us “wisecrack” and “wisenheimer.” But, in fact, “wiseacre” came to English in the 16th century by a different route. It derived from the Middle Dutch “wijssegger,” meaning “soothsayer,” “prophet,” or “seer.”
And “wijssegger,” according to the Oxford Dictionaries, probably came from the Germanic base “wit,” that is, knowledge or to know.
Together, soothsayer, smarty-pants, wit, and knowledge – especially when combined with wisdom and wizard – capture something of the spirit that I admire in all three wise-agers I’ve named. If enough of us start using it, perhaps one day “wise-ager” will make a proper appearance in a legitimate dictionary. Perhaps it can at least sneak in as a footnote.
• Jini Dellaccio, 2012 photo by ML Sutton, with a self-portrait of Jini from the 1960s.
• A still from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, 2009.
• Anne Gerber in a travel photo by an unnamed photographer.