Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
LOOKING BACK OVER my family tree, the last century has been kind to my ancestors. Many of them have made it to a ripe old age, with some outliving previous generations twice over. But as a member of the next generation to move into middle age (and, if I’m lucky, beyond that), I find myself already ‘burning and raving’ and raging against what I see as narrow options ahead.
I guess I’ve seen some of the worst of options for ageing. As a student I worked as a home help, cleaning houses for older people living at home alone. As I cleaned, they often talked. I heard that physical decline had reduced their ability to leave their homes; that family members and friends had either died or were unable to visit; that they felt constrained and undervalued, despite believing that they still had so much to offer.
Later, as a social worker, part of my job was to ensure that older people didn’t get ‘stuck’ in hospitals when they were unable to return to independent living. It was my job to take them on visits to nursing homes (now renamed ‘aged-care facilities’) into which they might consider moving. I still think about some of these people, who were ‘placed’ in ‘care’ that seemed far from anything I would consider caring in nature or form.
Over the past five years, in my work as a social designer and innovator, I’ve had the opportunity to explore how Baby Boomers are starting to reshape ageing, and how they are facing challenges that include the so-called ‘epidemic’ of loneliness; the increasingly evident divide between those who are ageing in wealth, and those who are ageing in poverty; growing homelessness, particularly among older women; and the still inadequate care options for those who have neither the willingness to canvas current aged-care facilities, nor the resources to fund alternatives.
But I am part of Generation X. Born between 1964 and 1980, we’re squeezed between Baby Boomers and the Gen Y/Millennial nexus. The Boomers are associated with revolutionising social norms in Australia and credited with being the wealth generators of the twentieth century. The Ys and the Millennials are defined by connections to technology and their status as ‘digital natives’. We Gen Xers are said to be left with no distinct defining features of our own.
I disagree: we are self-reliant; we embrace diversity; we are readily exposed to various new media platforms; and we are currently the most heavily indebted generation in Australia. We are also heading rapidly and somewhat uncomfortably into middle age while the Baby Boomers move towards retirement with optimism, big families and the largest slice of wealth of any previous generation.
The Baby Boomers were first urged by historian Peter Laslett to create a ‘fresh map of life’ by harnessing a period of ‘personal achievement and enrichment’ after retiring and entering into their ‘third age’, one in which it was more possible to continue being healthy and active while getting older. Joseph Couglin from MIT AgeLab has railed at Boomers to consider what to do with all that extra, precious time between retirement and death: ‘Over the past century, we’ve created the greatest gift in the history of humanity – thirty extra years of life – and we don’t know what to do with it!… Why don’t we take that one-third and create new stories, new rituals, new mythologies for people as they age?’
Now, Gen Xers have the opportunity to redefine the territory of these life maps and, in many ways, an obligation to switch from personal to planetary enrichment. In the same timeframe that we have left before ‘retirement’, the outlook for our planet is grave. According to a recent European study, the 2030s will also be the point of ‘no return’ when it will become almost impossible to stop Earth’s temperature rising by a minimum of 2-degrees Celsius, thereby consolidating the trajectory of climate change we are already witnessing in Australia. As the generation leading the decisions made up to that point, we will be the first generation to age into the consequences of those decisions.
We will also be the generation that stretches health in longevity even further through medical and technological innovation – we could be looking at many more of us experiencing those thirty years post ‘retirement’ as much healthier, more engaged and active. Indeed, estimates suggest that by 2050, close to 25 per cent of Australians will be aged over sixty-five. The coincidence of these factors – the Earth’s climatic point of no return, and our ‘retirement’ – need to shape how we plan our way into this new age not just personally, but politically and globally.
Generation X needs to put some stakes into the ground now if we want to establish our own pathways into old age. We differ from Baby Boomers both in terms of our influences and experiences, and our deeper connections with peers over family. We are born of an era with looser social norms, more freedoms – a time before ‘risks’ turned parents into monitors. While Baby Boomers will no doubt change some of the norms for ageing in Australia, I don’t see myself or my fellow Gen Xers represented in how this change is shaping up. Therefore, I have collated some of the thoughts of my Gen X peers into a manifesto of sorts – one that is more provocation than position, and more bricolage than coherent ideology. I am continuing to seek responses from my peers (a good Gen Xer would, given that we’re much more culturally attuned to peer feedback than our predecessors) and from fellow travellers who wish to explore our ripening futures.
In 2015, the German artist and filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt created Manifesto, an exquisitely exhausting multichannel artwork in which Cate Blanchett performs extracts from the manifestos of artists from futurists and dadaists to the French poet André Breton and American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. Through this, Rosefeldt articulates the nature of a manifesto in very Gen X terms: ‘A manifesto often represents the voice of a young generation, confronted with a world they don’t agree with and they want to go against. You can either play in a punk band, start yelling at your parents or your teachers – or you can write or make art.’
In this way, my manifesto is a bit shouty, and while it is not written by someone from a young generation as such, it represents some of the frustrations and disagreements of a generation that grew up with values that sat beyond the more dominant ones of the day. Manifestos are modernist in their orientation, and so I offer mine in the spirit of a singular voice that seeks to stimulate others to propose their visions for ageing. In this way we can begin to seek a diversity of views.
Let us rather create bold rage than succumb to old age.
WE WILL NOT go gentle into an age of decline. We rail not against our age, but against a society that seeks to hide us when we have much more to give and live.
We will ‘rage’, not ‘age’. The narrative of decline and decrepitude will not define us. We will make ourselves visible using all forms of eccentricity and technology – not to act youthfully, but usefully.
We will not ‘retire’: this is the dawn of an age focused on purpose. There is no point to the ‘eternal youth’ of medical advances for longevity without a purpose – and who wants to live longer with less meaning? We will not retire or retreat; we will advance boldly and purposefully into an age where we can actively shape a better world, be that through work, art, conviviality or hobby.
We will not accept ‘aged care’. We may need care, and we will care, but on our terms, within an intergenerational kinship of our determining, not in sterile institutions where single generations are hidden from the view of others.
We will embrace technology, medicine and innovation, but not be rendered passive by it. We will age with technology and use it to share our voice and spirit, create meaning, purpose and connection rather than using it as a distractor, a tranquiliser, where we look on at life as passive observers. Technology will enable us to weave together a story of our age – one that reflects not our individual egos, but a future for our ecosystems.
Through this, we will create a new story of this part of our life course: we have to. We will have more life left than any past generation after we are deemed to be ‘old’. We will not waste this with puerile leisures and pleasures, becoming rent-seekers of the generations that precede us. Instead we will seek to use our eldership to grow a future for all. We will tell our stories, show our work, speak our truths, laugh at ourselves loudly and craft a new narrative for ageing in the process.
Age will not define us, but neither will we ignore it. We are not scared of ageing, but of staying in the confines of definitions made for us by those who have aged before us. It is not decline we see in our futures; it is a new lifeline.
MARILYN FERGUSON’S SEMINAL work The Aquarian Conspiracy (Tarcher, 1980) – about the ‘new age’ rather than ageing – is credited by many as drawing together the ‘movement’ of Baby Boomer-led innovation and institutional change. In it, Ferguson argued that ‘of all the self-fulfilling prophecies in our culture the assumption that ageing means decline and poor health is probably the deadliest’. It has also proved to be one of the hardest to shift: the Boomers have had little success reframing it.
To date, I am profoundly disappointed by the alternatives they have proposed to those narratives of decline, decrepitude or boundless, navel-gazing leisure. Perhaps I am being too harsh and something will change as more Baby Boomers retire. But we need to foster a deeper conversation than one defined by how many cruises we have undertaken, how well our superannuation is growing and how much of our children’s inheritance we can spend.
Since reaching ‘middle age’, I am increasingly conscious of signs that society sees me as heading towards decline; friends increasingly refer to their own growing invisibility, frailty and disappearance. And yet I am also looking at the possibility that I may have as many years ahead of me as I have behind me. With this comes the potential to re-create myself – particularly when I think of how much I have already changed and improved over the past thirty years. I am stronger, clearer, more confident, less unsure – and I like myself much more. Will all this stop as I transition over the ‘hump’ of midlife? I think not, and so I seek to grow bolder as I grow older, to pursue a life of deeper learning, of greater voice, of eccentricity.
At the same time, my First Nations friends of similar age are growing into greater visibility. What might ‘eldership’ look like for non-Indigenous people in Australia – and do we have the cultural foundations to grow this, or do we need to create some kind of cultural narrative to explore a parallel pathway? This is not a desire to appropriate First Nations eldership structures, just a reflection on the cultural conversations we need to foster in non-
Indigenous Australia that might stitch a different narrative around ageing.
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury portrays a society in which people are indoctrinated and controlled according to set roles. One character, Clarisse, rails against this, and even embraces the title of ‘insane’. ‘When people ask your age,’ she says, ‘…always say seventeen and insane.’ Like Clarisse, defying the stereotypes that frame the roles we can adopt as we age will require some degree of insanity – a degree of individual action that defies convention. This is not about denying our age, but rather, developing a style that is characteristically of our age: I might be seventy and insane and still challenging the roles in which society tries to box me. This notion of ‘insanity’, of madness, draws me to the notion of ‘rage’ as a way of being – and ‘madness’ is the old English meaning attached to ‘rage’. The angry old woman is present in many narratives of ageing: in the crones, Baba Yaga, the old biddy. I want to bring her into this new narrative too, not only to reflect an angry version of rage, but to harness the word’s other meaning, that of ‘vehement desire or passion’ for contributing to a better future – particularly as these archetypal raging women are also often deep defenders of nurturing the natural world. Rage is a much maligned emotion, particularly for older women, so it seems apt to adopt it for a polemic restructuring of growing older.
And I do feel a growing rage at the complacency and the blatant selfishness that increasingly pervades both my generation and that of the Baby Boomers. Many people across Australia have become awfully entitled, and I want to engage with this entitlement further. The real danger is that my rage, over time, will erode into the sort of cynicism I see breaking out among so many of my more progressive older friends, who, despite years of effort to create real and lasting change, increasingly cannot see the fruits of these efforts in how our social and cultural institutions are being shaped. How, then, to borrow from Gough Whitlam – who continues to inspire many progressive Gen Xers (even if we’re too young to remember the dismissal) – do we ‘maintain [our] rage and enthusiasm’ as we age? For me, it centres on growing the purpose and work that lies ahead if we are to achieve the huge goals that must be the focus of our times – issues such as climate change, species extinction and growing social inequity. The enormous need for planetary enrichment over the coming decades should inspire Generation X to redefine a rage that propels us to act for change well into our ageing years.
THE CONCEPT OF ‘retirement’ has never sat well with me, and this may be genetic. My dad ‘retired’ five times from paid employment and, until a very recent major stroke, replaced this work with community work, intense hobbies and an active neighbourhood life. My mum is not the retiring type either: a voracious learner, teacher and carer, she rarely sits still.
Retirement is assumed to be a right and a privilege – something deserved by all who participate in the economy and pay their so-called dues. Yet the notion of retirement is relatively young: it was first canvassed in the 1870s, around the time one of my great-great-grandfathers died in a poorhouse in the same region of the UK where enlightened religious folk were seeking alternatives to ageing in poverty. A pensioned retirement for the working class was first enacted by Otto von Bismarck in 1889, in his quest, among other things, to quell the spread of socialism amid German workers. Even then retirement was framed as a ‘retreat’, a withdrawal from active participation in working life. In Australia’s comparatively universal welfare state, it has had enormous benefits in terms of ensuring that people are not forced to ‘work until they drop’ and can move into older age with at least a basic sense of security. The link between ‘retirement’ and eligibility for the age pension has been set in stone since the latter’s inception in Australia in 1909: it is a form of compensation for no longer engaging in paid work, if you are eligible. Given the increased longevity and improved health of many Australians – and the result that ‘retirement’ can now represent a good third of someone’s life – it’s time to rethink this on the grounds of both its impact on individuals and on society as a whole.
Retirement, according to some research, is not good for us. For men, it can be deadly, with research suggesting that retirement can increase mortality by 2 per cent in the first year. According to recent research, non-voluntary retirement can lead to increased levels of social isolation, with retirees ‘suffer(ing) from the loss of daily routines, physical and/or mental activity, a sense of identity and purpose, and social interactions, which may lead them to adopt unhealthy behaviors’. Work is also about serving others and creating meaning, and that meaning connects us to both a sense of purpose, of being valued, and also to other people. This provides a sense of belonging. Working – through employment, self-employment or voluntary work – is also a protective factor for loneliness, as is receiving income beyond the basic safety-net support. Interestingly, older people are often as productive, or even more productive, than younger people. According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, while ‘for most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of thirty…knowledge and expertise – the main predictors of job performance – keep increasing even beyond the age of eighty’. Further, in Australia, a growing number of entrepreneurs are ‘seniors’, with entrepreneurship among the fifty-five to sixty-four-year-olds being the fastest growing segment, according to recent work by Queensland researcher Roxanne Zolin.
A retirement framed as a retreat from participation wastes the human potential of people as they age, denying the possibility of learning, volunteering, entrepreneurship and creativity throughout a whole life’s course. By all means, let’s consider slowing down and rearranging our work-life balance – but let’s not retire just because it’s expected.
DESPITE A CONCERTED effort by the aged-care industry to rebrand itself, the industrial-style aged-care facilities of the twenty-first century do not look at all appealing to younger Baby Boomers, let alone Gen Xers. ‘Post-fifties’ lifestyle villages are horror-inducing to many approaching the requisite age, and the move towards creating ‘resort-style’ or even ‘cruise-style’ facilities leaves many cold. The challenge ahead is to develop a smorgasbord of choices for living outside institutional care facilities, from co-housing and intergenerational housing developments to peer-to-peer home and care arrangements. Many different options are flourishing in countries such as Germany, which is one of the ‘super-ageing’ nations of Europe, but are only in their infancy in Australia. In Germany, I could choose to live in a Mehrgenerationenhaus – literally, a multiple-generation house, where I could engage with children in the on-site nursery, share a coffee with a resident university student or engage in a crafty project with peers. In New Zealand, discussions about sharing care needs are beginning to take place – I could now buy a unit that includes a shared kitchen and lounge area in which I can choose to interact with other residents or not.
For those of us from Gen X without children (either by choice or circumstance), developing options for future care are even more pressing. I increasingly find myself in conversations with fellow Gen Xers where we joke about buying a large house or building a purpose-built dwelling where we could all live together as we age. Maybe it’s not a joke, but a challenge.
Perhaps the bigger question is how the economy would cope if we could reject aged care – and what the broader consequences might be. Since colonisation, Australia has been characterised by an economy fashioned from agriculture, mining and manufacturing. But the twenty-first century has witnessed its profound reshaping as healthcare, social care, education and welfare have become primary-growth industries. In the last five years, these industries have dominated jobs growth in Australia. In the next decade, this sector is expected to continue growing. Yet interestingly, the health and social care sectors are not yet adequately recognised in the context of government innovation and industry policy, although the market is predominantly based on government revenues. The federal government’s Australia 2030 plan recognises the demographic shifts that make ageing central to Australia’s economic future – but it does not mention the huge innovation potential that exists in terms of developing effective and efficient care systems, housing and education options, and healthcare opportunities that could fuel a truly age-friendly Australia into the future. The ‘future of work’ debate rarely mentions that ‘care’ is perhaps one of the few arenas of work where automation will fail to penetrate substantially in the years ahead: by its very nature, it requires human relations. As tectonic shifts turn our economy towards more care jobs, it is time to ask some tough questions about what the nature of this care should be, particularly when so many of us find the models that are being publicly denounced in the Royal Commission into Aged Care abhorrent. There is no doubt that many of us will continue to need forms of high care as we age – the challenge and opportunity of this is to develop and demonstrate truly innovative ways for it to occur outside institutional contexts.
AUSTRALIA’S GENERATION X grew up primarily analogue: we are referred to as ‘digital immigrants’, having migrated to digital platforms late in our adolescence or in adulthood. This makes many of us adept on multiple media platforms, but it also means that we use them differently from Boomers, Gen Yers and Millennials. Gen Xers in Australia, the US and UK are often referred to as the ‘latchkey’ generation, since many were left to occupy themselves while both parents worked, or grew up with much more freedom to explore than previous generations. According to some commentators, this has resulted in more well-developed peer orientation: we are the first generation to have experienced large-scale childcare; we also spent more unsupervised time with our friends than other generations. This has influenced our use of digital technologies, particularly social media.
Much commentary has framed digital technologies as depleting social capital and reducing relational capacities. While this may be a real danger, we are also starting to see the potential for these technologies to foster connections – and how, if harnessed, they could help to protect us from the loneliness that has been deemed a public health ‘epidemic’ in Australia, and that particularly affects older people. Carers in the UK can connect with one another via a platform called ‘Push to Talk’, which enables them to reduce isolation through on-demand conversations with other carers. In Brazil, a very successful campaign, CNA Speaking Exchange, linked younger Brazilians seeking to practise their English language skills with older people in aged-care facilities in the US who were willing to speak with them and help coach them in conversational English. Not surprisingly, improved language skills were not the only result: there was a marked improvement in feelings of connectedness and purpose for the older people involved. The potential to massively grow innovation in this space has been recognised in both medical and aged-care research.
My grandmother raised a family of adopted children and essentially ‘adopted’ her fellow residents at the aged-care facility she lived in for the final twenty years of her life – she mended, fixed and created for them on her sewing machine in a laundry closet at the home until she decided to isolate herself from the pain of constantly losing friends as she outlived them. The resultant loneliness she experienced had a profound impact on her health: I saw her start to fade away, physically and mentally, and I questioned her about what was going on. She told me:
All my friends have died. I have made such good friends here, but having friends means losing them, and that means grieving for them. I can’t bear to lose any more friends. It’s easier to stop making friends, and that means I need to stop making, stop sewing, stop fixing. That way people won’t depend on me, and won’t befriend me. It means I’ll be alone, but it also means I won’t need to love and that means I won’t need to grieve.
As she shrank into her unit, her family became her only source of love and connection. And while we visited regularly, we could not provide all the connection she needed. She retired her sewing machine, withdrew, closed down from those around her. I vowed never to follow that path. She died before the internet took flight, and I often found myself wondering if we could have found other ways to increase her connections; if she could have stayed in contact with others more readily via technology; if this could have reduced her self-imposed isolation.
Social connection shapes our concept of self and our wellbeing across our lifespan, but it may be even more important as we age given that it predicts functional decline and premature death. Research undertaken about social networks as protective factors for loneliness and social isolation suggests that the magic number is four relationships. Other research suggests that these relationships should be diverse (including family and friends) and that their quality correlates with the degree of inoculation against isolation. Given Gen X’s propensity to seek connection with peers, it is possible that we will develop ways to use digital media to foster our relationships and further guard against isolation, not as a replacement for physical contact, but as an important adjunct. As we do so, we should remember the importance of diversity and quality and ask ourselves whether we are building a coalition of diverse voices, rather than succumbing to the homogenous enclaves that can characterise social media connections. We need to engineer degrees of quality – of depth, love and conviviality – in a medium that is too often dominated by relational platitudes and cat memes.
I AM NOT scared of death, and I am not scared of ageing. I am, however, scared of being reduced to a being that merely exists, rather than being empowered to constantly strive to express my potential – no matter my age. I look around me to those who I grew up with, who I work with, who I live with, and they are also starting to ask hard questions about how we shape and define what could be more than a third of our lives.
It is time for Generation X to step forward into our ripening with boldness and rage. It is time to answer the poet Mary Oliver’s question, and to answer it with passion:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
I turn to my peers and seek companions to explore, experiment and develop answers to this question together.
We have fifteen years to act.
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