I first stepped onto the stage at AARP’s Ideas@50+ national member event in San Diego in September 2014 to deliver a keynote address urging the 8,000 attendees to disrupt aging. Since then, the response has been over whelming. It turns out that this is a message that people aged 50 and over have been waiting to hear. People across the country, from all walks of life, have been sharing their experiences with me and telling me that although they don’t want to age the same way their parents did, they aren’t sure what to do about it. They are anxious to change the conversation in our society, and in some cases, to start having the conversation. They want more choices for how to live when they get older. They want new and better solutions to help them age with independence, dignity and purpose. They are ready to chart a new course. So am I.
I wrote this book to provide a pathway for those who are 50 and over and to create a new vision for all generations for living and aging in America. I can no more identify with my parents’ experience of aging than my own kids can identify with mine. It’s just different. Sometimes I play this little game when I hit certain milestones in my life — like birthdays, sending my kids off to college, attending their graduations, etc. — I think back and try to remember my parents as they experienced those same milestones. What was my mom like when she was 57? What were my parents doing when I graduated from college? How did they view their lives at various milestones along the way? It can be a real eye opener and really makes me realize how much things have changed from their generation to mine.
The way we are aging today is dramatically different from how it was a generation, even a decade ago. Yes, we are living longer and in better health, but it’s much more than that. We haven’t just added more years to the end of life, we’ve extended middle age and, in essence, created a new life stage that has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for how we live and age. And, we’re just beginning to understand the full range and depth of those possibilities.
Yet, most conversations around aging still view it as a problem to be solved. It’s a premise that is absolutely and fundamentally wrong, and millions of people are proving it wrong every day. The conversation can’t be about how to avoid a crisis, it needs to be about how to take advantage of the opportunities we have so we individually and as a nation can thrive.
Our culture, institutions, social supports and infrastructure have not kept up with the advancements in the way we age that science, technology and innovation have made and continue to make possible. That’s what the conversation is about. We need to get rid of the outdated beliefs and stereotypes about aging and spur new solutions so more of us can choose how we want to age. That means replacing old models that don’t work with new ones that do and updating those that do work so they continue to work in the future. That’s what disrupting aging is all about.
Aging’s Four Freedoms
On January 6, 1941, the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued for an end to the isolationist policies that grew out of World War I and offered a new ideology based on Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. In much the same way that Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms inspired America to wake up and realize what was happening in the world and to act, I have identified the Four Freedoms of Aging that will define a new vision for living and aging in America and inspire us to disrupt aging, making that vision a reality.
Freedom to Choose how and where you want to live as you age. When it comes to aging, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you want to follow a traditional path to retirement, you should be able to do that. If you want an active, engaged life, you should have options to pursue that as well. It’s all about having options available that allow you to choose how you live and age.
Freedom to Earn. A key part of the retirement model that most of us have grown up with is freedom from work. Today, a key part of extended middle age is the freedom to work. Many of us want or need to continue earning a living and are searching for ways to make a difference in society through the work we do. This requires reimagining work and breaking down both social and institutional barriers that stand in the way.
Freedom to Learn. If we want to stay engaged, involved and productive during our extended middle age and beyond, we need to keep learning. But let’s face it, the opportunities for us to keep learning diminish as we get older. In many cases, they’re just not there. As we disrupt aging, we will break down the barriers and create new opportunities to learn as we get older.
Freedom to Pursue Happiness by discovering and fulfilling your purpose. This is what it’s really all about. Our longer lives give us an extraordinary opportunity to become the people we have always wanted to be. But if we’re going to win at attaining Aging’s Four Freedoms, we have to work together to create a society where we have access to the care, information and services we need to lead healthier lives with independence and dignity; where we have the financial resources and opportunities to match our longer life spans; and where we are seen as an integral and inspirational asset to society.
Winning these freedoms begins with each of us. We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and wait for someone else to win these freedoms for us; we have to do it for ourselves. It’s time to tell our stories—what we believe and what we can do. So, in conversations with your family and friends, what beliefs will you challenge? We need to change both the culture and the infrastructure of aging—the systems, programs, products and services that we encounter every day. In your life and in your work, what solutions will you spark? In everything that you do, think about what new possibilities you can create for yourself and others. What will you do to disrupt aging?
This is an edited excerpt from Jo Ann Jenkins’ forthcoming book (2016), Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age, published by PublicAffairs.