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 ageing. Since then, the response has been overwhelming. 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 ageing in America. I can no more identify with my parents’ experience of ageing 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 realise how much things have changed from their generation to mine.
The way we are ageing 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 ageing 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 ageing 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 ageing is all about.
Ageing’s four freedoms
On 6 January 1941, the eve of the United States’ entry into Second World War, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued for an end to the isolationist policies that grew out of First World War 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 realise what was happening in the world and to act, I have identified the Four Freedoms of Ageing that will define a new vision for living and ageing in America and inspire us to disrupt ageing, making that vision a reality.
Freedom to choose how and where you want to live as you age.
Freedom to earn.
Freedom to learn.
Freedom to pursue happiness by discovering and fulfilling your purpose.
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 ageing–the systems, programmes, 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 ageing?
This is an edited excerpt for the OECD Yearbook 2016 from Jo Ann Jenkins’ forthcoming book (2016), Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age, published by PublicAffairs.
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Jo Ann Jenkins