A talk by Mary Catherine Bateson at Town Hall five years ago gave me many ideas I continue to use today and prompted the following essay.
The age of active wisdom
Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson spoke at Town Hall recently. Her book, Composing a Life, published a couple of decades earlier, reinforced themes I saw in my own life then – that a life of interruption could be understood positively as “multi-faceted” and that there were advantages in finding ways to adapt to change and new possibilities fluidly. The main title of her 2010 book, Composing a Further Life, seemed flat, but the subtitle, “The Age of Active Wisdom,” was more promising.
Almost everyone at age 50 has had some condition, she said, that would have killed them in the past. I could name at least one in my case, more if I count conditions that would only have given me constant pain or that would have made breathing a moment-to-moment struggle or that would have taken my mind away sooner than later. On average, we live 30 years longer today than people did just 100 years ago. Most of this can be attributed to medical advances and increased knowledge. Many people more or less my age have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and resources. We don’t have to expect, Bateson said, that a long life means “perpetual decrepitude.”
We also can’t think of our extra 30 years as just, sort of, tacked on to the end of our lives. Thirty years is much too long for that. She encourages seeing these years as a whole new period in a life cycle. This is a provocative notion, though I don’t much like the name she gave it, “Adulthood II.” Maybe I’m just slow to come to terms with being an “adult.” I use a definition from my step-daughter, an adult herself; what makes you an “adult,” she told me years ago, is knowing when you have to act like one.
Bateson claims that by having this new cycle in our lives we are becoming a different species. In much the way that adding a room changes our entire house, adding an extra 30-year phase should change the way we think about our whole life. This increased longevity requires us, she believes, to imagine a new way to “compose a life.”
Our concept of “retirement” and, even more fundamentally, our concepts of work must change. Otto von Bismarck created the first “retirement” plan in Germany in 1889. Bismarck set retirement age at 70, knowing that the average German worker never reached that age. In 1935, the U.S. instituted its own retirement plan and set the age at 65, when average life expectancy here was 61.7 years. We’re living with the same framework today, even though life expectancy for a woman my age is pegged at 84.8*, not 30 years more, but it hasn’t been 100 years since 1935 yet, either.
Built into the notion of “retirement,” Bateson says, is the assumption that work is a curse, and if we don’t want to work, what we will do with all that time? She (though not I) can imagine spending a year playing golf, but not 30 years. Rethinking the value of work in our lives is the task at hand, finding ways to contribute that mean something. She thinks we need a labor movement committed to adapting the circumstances of work so it’s satisfying, not something to escape. As I often do, I look to artists for ideas. Poets don’t generally retire from writing poems; sculptors may move away from back-breakingly large projects, but they don’t stop imagining and making work in three dimensions.
Bateson refers to liberation movements from the past – Black, gay, women’s. The act at the core of liberation movements is claiming the right to define oneself, to see ourselves differently, beyond both societal and internalized prejudices. She wants to change the assumption that age and the wisdom it can bring is sedentary. The new 30-year addition to our lives can, instead, be characterized as the age of “active wisdom,” a time to use what we’ve learned through a life, to take time to reflect on it and act with the stamina and energy that our relative health gives us.
A friend recently caught me in the midst of what no doubt sounded like the start an angry rant. I was sure I’d detected a patronizing shift in a telephone operator’s voice when I mentioned my age. With Bateson’s ideas fresh in my mind, I slid easily into talk about the need for a new liberation movement. Cathryn was tolerant but steady in describing her own comfort with and anticipation of withdrawing from the active work life she has led, especially in the past decade. She seemed to relish in advance the benefits of a slower pace and the opportunity to learn things more thoroughly. Her view pulled me out of the little lather I’d worked up. There are many ways of claiming those extra years, many ways of being “active.” Ultimately her view and mine may not be so much at odds.
* As I post this in early 2016, the life expectancy for a woman my age in the U.S. has increased to 86.5 years.