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  • Written by Mary Catherine Bateson
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The Age of Active Wisdom

Written by Mary Catherine BatesonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Mary Catherine Bateson

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On Sale: September 14, 2010
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59422-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Mary Catherine Bateson—author of the landmark bestseller Composing a Life—gives us an inspiring exploration of a new life stage that she calls Adulthood II, a result of the longer life spans and greater resources we now enjoy. In Composing a Further Life, Bateson redefines old age as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and challenges us to use it to pursue new sources of meaning and ways to contribute to society.

Bateson shares the stories of men and women who are flourishing examples of this “age of active wisdom”—from a retired boatyard worker turned silversmith to a famous actress to a former foundation president exploring the crucial role of grandparents in our society. Retiring no longer means withdrawing from life, but engaging with it more deeply, and Composing a Further Life points the way.

Excerpt

Chapter I

Thinking About Longevity

Imagine a house that has been your home for a number of years, to which you unexpectedly have the resources to add a room. What will that room be? Will it serve a need that you were not aware of when you first moved in? You might, for instance, have decided that you now need a study or an exercise room. Or will it allow you to elaborate on something that has always been part of your life? Perhaps you have always cared about books and have bookshelves spread throughout your home, but now you want to gather those books together in a room you will call the library. You may not have had a room where a guest could stay but now want to offer hospitality to a married son or daughter with a new generation of children (will one room be enough?). You may want to take an avocation, like wood carving or work you have done for a cause you cared about, and develop it, so the new room will be a studio or an office. You may have become passionate about gourmet cooking and want a different kind of kitchen. Or you may simply want to use this opportunity to extend your traditional “living room” in some new and more inclusive way, with more space or wider windows or a hearth.

The first thing you will discover when you “add” a room to a house is that add is generally the wrong word, because the way you use all the rest of the house, the way you live and organize your time and even your relationships, will be affected by the change. Existing rooms will be used differently, sounds will echo in new ways, community and privacy will have new meanings. Gaps will open where familiar items have been shifted to the new space and new acquisitions will fill them. The new room is not simply tacked on to the east or west side of the house, it represents a new configuration of the entire building and the lives it shelters.

This is what longevity is like. In the United States, we have not “added” years to life (thirty in the twentieth century, twenty since World War II), tacked on at the end. We have changed the shape and meaning of a lifetime in ways we do not yet fully understand. Similarly, with increasing numbers of older citizens, we are changing as a population, becoming a rather different society, just as the Louisiana and Alaska purchases brought more than geographical space to the nation. Arguably, something even more profound has happened: we are evolving into a rather different species, inhabiting a new niche and challenged to adapt in new ways. Similar processes are occurring in other industrialized countries, but culture, legislation, and economy make them play out differently, so the examples in this book, drawn from the United States, need to be interpreted in the light of American conditions, particularly the continuing openness to immigration, the lack of mandatory retirement laws, and attitudes toward employment.

Here is the situation in which we find ourselves. Most Americans are aware that the retirement of the Baby Boom generation is creating a variety of new demands, so that “retirement” has changed its meaning. In fact, our assumptions about retirement already mask deep changes. Government retirement pensions were invented in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, at a time when sixty-five-year-olds were few and far between (life expectancy at birth was about forty-five), were mostly very limited in their ability to work, and would not be around for long. In other words, retirement was invented for people whose conditions were in some ways worse than those of eighty-five-year-olds in the United States today. Today’s sixty-five-year-olds are starting new careers or continuing old ones, traveling around the world, and eloping with new loves.

What is less widely understood is that this is happening at a time when both individual life cycles and populations have taken on radically new structures. We have not added decades to life expectancy by simply extending old age; instead, we have opened up a new space partway through the life course, a second and different kind of adulthood that precedes old age, and as a result every stage of life is undergoing change.

Different societies look at age-groups differently. In some places status is governed by small differences of age, in others all children or all old people may be grouped together. However, virtually every society does make distinctions between children and adults and does recognize changes in the participation of older adults, creating at least three major stages of life, which may be subdivided further, stages that ? cor?respond for many individuals to generations: childhood (not yet adults), parenthood (adults), and grandparenthood (elders). With the survival of many grandparents to become great-grandparents and the improved health conditions of older adults, we have in effect created the first four-generation society in history.

Here I am not using the term generation to refer to twenty-year cohorts with catchy nicknames, although cohorts do indeed share characteristics determined by the changing contexts in which they have grown up and lived. I am referring to the presence of three coexisting generations defined by their roles and activities, with individuals moving from one to the next as “the younger generation” becomes “the older generation” around the campfire or the table; children become parents, and parents become grandparents, often by about the age of forty, which was regarded as a fairly ripe old age through most of human history. Today’s grandparents, including a considerable proportion of Baby Boomers, are different from grandparents in the past and much healthier and more numerous.

This is new. Every society has some members who are not yet full participants—infants, children, and those approaching adulthood, whom we now call adolescents. And every society has adults who are simultaneously full participants in maintaining the society and in its perpetuation as they produce and rear children. And every society has at least a few older members who are past their reproductive and child-rearing years, often in declining health. This older generation typically withdraws from some kinds of participation, but the pattern always includes some continuing contribution, often of a sort that is not open to younger adults.

We know from cross-cultural studies that postreproductive adults—elders—have played a key role in human societies through time. Many of these elders have been grandparents and a few have been great-grandparents (a very scarce resource through most of history), but in terms of the ancient three-generation structure, they have played similar roles. This has been the human pattern: three generations or stages of life, diverse and changing through time, defined in relation to the others and to their forms of participation and only secondarily as age-groups.

Now, however, older adults, many of whom are grandparents but who have an unprecedented level of health and energy, time and resources, fit into society in new ways, often much like younger adults. And for the first time in history there are large numbers of great- grandparents, who look and act somewhat, but not precisely, the way grandparents used to. Biomedicine has once again created a profound change in the human condition. We have inserted a new developmental stage into the life cycle, a second stage of adulthood, not an extension tacked on to old age.

A decade ago some of us began calling this stage a second adulthood, but that phrase too easily evokes the second rate or secondhand—or even a second childhood of incompetence. I think we will need to think in terms of a first adult stage we can call Adulthood I, a very busy and productive time, which includes both our primary child-rearing years and the building of careers, and a new stage we can call Adulthood II. Adulthood II may begin as early as age forty (for example, for athletes, whose first careers may last only twenty years) and extend past eighty (for example, for politicians, if they reach the Senate, and many self-employed people), for many years of participation and contribution. Both as individuals and as a society we are being taken by surprise by this change, yet so far most of the discussion focuses on its financial implications, not on its opportunities. How will the new room be used? How will the rest of life be different?

Those who are grandparents today are unlike the grandparents they remember. They adore their grandchildren, but they just aren’t sitting still. They won’t behave like stereotypical grandparents, with long memories and short walks, until they are great-grandparents. They are often colleagues to their own children, working side by side as adults. Historically, wisdom has been associated with elders. Today’s grandparents combine the same length of experience with continuing mobility, so I think of Adulthood II as the stage of active wisdom, which precedes old age.

We are going through a profound change in the status of the human species. The easiest way to assess that change is to consider the importance of an extended childhood in the process of becoming human, Homo sapiens. From very simple organisms up through mammals, learning very slowly became a key to survival; most organisms are hatched or born equipped with the specialized behaviors they need to survive in their environments, or can acquire them in a matter of days or weeks, without an extended period of dependency. Human development, by comparison, is exceptionally labor intensive, requiring the attention of multiple adults over long periods of time. Even in comparison to other mammals, human infants and children are helpless in a way that is conspicuous and seems terribly inefficient. But it is this helplessness that is the key not only to the flexibility that has allowed humans to adapt to every environment on the planet but also to the long adventure of exploration and invention that we call culture. Even more important, it is what prepares human beings to give and receive love and is the seedbed of conscience.

For humans, even the most rudimentary skills of survival must be transmitted from generation to generation early in the life course. Transmitting even a fraction of the larger culture requires a period of enculturation that now lasts twenty or more years and often continues to the end of life. It seems that the experiences of helplessness, depen?- dence, and vulnerability are essential to becoming human. Human infants have no option of walking or flying away after a few weeks or months but willy-nilly are forced to stay with caregivers, normally creating the context for learning, along with an array of information and skills, how to love and how to trust.

When we look at aging from a Darwinian perspective, it is clear that the same apparent anomaly exists at the end of life. If the hen is the egg’s way of making another egg, the hen that is no longer laying is useless except for the stewpot. In many species, the spider lays her eggs and dies—she has made her contribution to the future (and sometimes she kills her mate, his contribution also completed). Yet even as natural selection has reinforced a period of dependent learning for the survival of offspring in some species, natural selection apparently reinforces the possibility for elders in some species to live on while their young mature, sometimes to produce another brood, and sometimes beyond that capacity as well.

Studies of species that live in groups, where members of the pack or herd tend to be related—for instance, a herd of deer—have shown that the survival of a few postreproductive animals, in this case a few old does, increases the chance of survival of young born in the herd, because the old does remember where to find food or water in a year of drought or very deep snow, contributing to the inclusive fitness of the group. Human society is conspicuous for the role played by adults other than parents in the rearing of the young—in fact, teaching is more distinctively human than learning, as is the institutionalization of teaching roles. Anthropologists have looked at human groups and demonstrated that the presence of grandparents—particularly maternal grandmothers—reduces infant and child mortality, which is to say, increases the likelihood that children will grow up to pass on their genes, presumably the same genes that kept their grandparents healthy and supportive. And here, too, love and trust must be part of the equation, particularly the trust between a new mother and her own mother, which allows her to accept help and advice more easily than from a mother-in-law.

Most human groups value their elders, and a great many societies have evolved specialized and valued roles for the old, some of them depending on obvious assets, like length of experience, and others involving more subtle values. Among the San Bushmen of southern Africa, for instance, the hunt for game with poison-tipped arrows depends on moving rapidly across the veld, first to approach the quarry and then to follow for several days as the poison does its work. When men become too old to participate in the hunt, they become the makers of arrows—and tradition ascribes to the arrow maker the primary credit for the kill, so that in the distribution of meat to all the members of the community, the arrow maker is treated as the source. Looked at pragmatically, the making of the arrow is indeed a contribution, one that could be made by a younger man but has been reserved for the old, but less of a concrete contribution than the honor it is given, which makes it central to the solidarity of the band. Similarly, only when women are too old for childbearing are they permitted to become shamanic healers, a translation of the love and care they have given their children to the health of the wider community. In both cases, an appropriately limited effort is recognized as having a profound value.
Mary Catherine Bateson|Author Q&A

About Mary Catherine Bateson

Mary Catherine Bateson - Composing a Further Life

Photo © Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Mary Catherine Bateson was Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University from 1987 to 2002, when she became Professor Emerita. She is a Visiting Scholar at the Center on Aging and Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College and, until recently, was president of the Institute of Intercultural Studies in New York City. She is the author of Composing a Life; With a Daughter’s Eye: A Memoir of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson; Peripheral Visions: Learning Along the Way; Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition; and Willing to Learn: Passages of Personal Discovery. She resides in Hancock, New Hampshire.

Author Q&A

Q: Was there a particular event or catalyst that made you decide to follow up your bestseller Composing a Life with Composing a Further Life?  Did you expect to write a follow-up at some point or did something happen in our society that made you feel it was essential?
A:
Many people have asked for a follow-up on the specific women in Composing a Life, but this is a different kind of follow-up, moving on to a later stage in the life cycle with a different set of examples, this time both men and women.  On the one hand, I began to realize that my contemporaries were approaching their later years with obsolete assumptions and expectations.  On the other hand, I asked what I could most usefully contribute on the basis of my skills.
 
Q: The subtitle of your book is “The Age of Active Wisdom.”  How would you define “Active Wisdom”?
A:
Active Wisdom is the product of modern improvements in health that not only extend longevity but extend the years of relatively energetic and pain free productivity and participation, creating a new life stage, Adulthood II, inserted before old age. Wisdom comes from a lifetime of learning and reflecting on experience, but often in the past wisdom was associated with the waning strength and immobility of old age.  Today’s seniors often have decades of energetic health that allows them to play active roles in society.

The convergence of wisdom and activism for large numbers of men and women in Adulthood II is a new phenomenon in human history. Consciousness of this phenomenon may be as revolutionary as the shifts in consciousness behind the liberation movements of the 20th century. As we recognize and work with active wisdom, older Americans will discover not only the joys of social engagement but their ability to make unique contributions to a just and humane future.


Q: You have termed the years you are writing about “Adulthood II”.  What are those years and what specifically defines them? When does one move from Adulthood I to Adulthood II?
A:
I don’t think the definition can be narrowly chronological, but roughly speaking I am looking somewhere between the ages of fifty and eighty, years when one or more of the major preoccupations of a lifetime winds down, and when we are aware both that time is limited and that we have time we had not expected to have, sometimes brief but often as much as thirty years.  For some, Adulthood II begins at retirement, which is different for different professions, and it often ends with increasing health problems and frailty. For others it begins with an empty nest.  The beginning is often marked by a shift in circumstances that makes us ask again about who we are, who we love, and what we have to offer.  
 
Q: What do you feel are the most common misperceptions about life in these years?
A:
There are two very common misperceptions:  One is the expectation of decrepitude and chronic illness, which now come later than we have learned to expect.  The other is the idea that work is a negative which everyone will be glad to get away from – in fact, humans do better when they feel they are making a contribution.

Q: You profile many different people in this book—a retired Maine boatyard worker who has become a silversmith and maker of fine jewelry; an African American woman who explores the importance of grandmothering; two gay men finding contentment in mutual caring; the retired dean of a cathedral in New York City who exemplifies how a multiplicity of interests and connections lead to deeper unity; and Jane Fonda, who shares her ways of dealing with change and spiritual growth—How did you go about finding and selecting the people you write about?
A:
In general, I don’t choose people to profile who can be directly emulated—instead, I am trying to suggest a range of possibilities.  I make a point of interviewing only people for whom I feel respect, people who have made constructive choices and grown wiser, but not people who are perfect.  My methodology requires a relationship of trust, so I generally choose people I already know or who are recommended through friends. I also try to find individuals with experience of some aspect of the larger topic that should be included.

Q: How do you see this book being used?
A:
This is really a book for beginning conversations as we explore the new possibilities of Adulthood II, a whole new stage in the life cycle.  The lives described here all have an element of pioneering, improvisations in newly discovered territory, so this book and others offer preliminary maps of still uncharted developments  that will gradually be understood over the next decade, changing the way we look at the entire life span.  As we become conscious of the change, we will want to rethink education—starting with pre-school—to fully support lifelong learning.  We will want to rethink career profiles and job descriptions to enable contributions by older adults without shutting out youth entering the labor market. Perhaps we will achieve a new understanding of the value and rewards of work.  As we listen to the voices of those who have lived through multiple changes, we will explore the meaning of sustainability and think further ahead in our political and economic decisions, and we will apply a sense of how individuals can continue to grow to the criminal justice system.  My hope is that by beginning from individual narratives I will also stimulate conversations about communities and about the life of the planet.

Q: You use the idea of adding a room to a house as a metaphor for thinking about the next phase in life.  Why a house?
A:
It’s a metaphor that allows me to show very concretely that the years of increased average life expectancy gained in the 20th century—some thirty years—have an effect on the entire life span, as a new family room, for example, changes the way the other rooms in a home are used and changes the relationships and behavior of a family. But beyond that, I think it is an intuitively powerful metaphor, and many people adopt it as they either move or remodel to express transitions in their lives.

Q: You warn against the tendency to promote independence over interdependence and our almost obsessive need to avoid ever being dependent on others, to never become (to use a word often heard about older people) a “burden”. When did this idea become so pervasive and why, as you say, is “independence an illusion”?
A:
I think the theme of independence has been established in American culture since pioneer days, when settlers sometimes moved further west as soon as they could smell someone else’s campfire.  At the same time, they did expect to help each other, and neighborliness or kindness to strangers were important.  We have developed an ethos of fairly isolated individuals or
nuclear families, sufficiently affluent not to share and protected by privacy, in contrast to most societies where individuals are aware throughout their lives of the usefulness of a network of kin and the responsibilities this entails.  Ironically, the old proverb “a rolling stone gathers no moss” has shifted meaning and “moss,” (property, kin, relationships) is heard as a negative. Some have argued that ecology is the central metaphor for thinking about the future, and ecology argues interdependence and connection with the entire natural world.  

Q: You write, “We tend to assume that the old, because they have fewer years ahead of them are less concerned with the future than younger adults, but in fact the group best equipped to advocate for the future are thoughtful older adults.” You talk about the idea of harnessing the wisdom and experience of older adults and putting them towards the key causes or our time—the environment, for example.  Do you think politicians and organizers are effectively harnessing the power of this group?
A:
No. So far, politicians seem literally blind to the role that older adults can play. But “harnessing” may not be the right word.  Older adults can contribute creative ideas and new points of view that need to be tapped, as well as numbers and hands.  Polls at present do not explore the influence of grandchildren or grand nieces and nephews on decisions, they simply explore self-interest and concern for entitlements, obscuring the concern we have for the world beyond our lifetimes.  Older adults take less for granted, for they have seen customs change and the economy go up and down, and have learned to recognize both positive and negative change and the costs and benefits of adaptation.  We stereotype seniors as having fixed opinions—yet their opinions have been evolving through long years of change and continue to evolve.  Many adults in midlife are overloaded with responsibilities and are forced to focus on the immediate future—the problems of today and tomorrow—rather than on the years and decades ahead. We need to take responsibility for environmental conditions as we become aware of our dependence on them—and of the importance of species diversity in sustaining life.

Q: You have spoken often of the importance of libraries for older generations and have done extensive work with libraries around the country. Can you talk a little about your involvement as well as why libraries are so important in this cause?
A:
Well, I was asked how libraries should prepare for the retirements of the Baby Boomers, beyond getting “more large print books.”  What I came to realize was that the changing characteristics of aging require a shift of consciousness, which is best achieved through conversation, and that libraries could serve as sites for such conversations, as well as providing resources.  Around the country, libraries also often offer courses in computer literacy, ways to find appropriate volunteer activities, and, most important, neutral sites for discussion.  

Q: What other institutions are key for those in Adulthood II?
A:
Social scientists use the word institution in two ways—in one sense, the family is an institution, marriage is an institution.  In the other sense, institutions are formal organizations.  Because the family has been weakened in many ways, I think it is important to seek out institutions that span the generations, such as communities of worship or political parties. Educational institutions are also worth consideration because they may have programs oriented to communities or special programs for seniors.  Seek out institutions that challenge new learning and offer new connections and relationships.
   
Q: For someone just entering Adulthood II, can you offer some practical advice about what first steps to take towards making these years the best they can be?
A:
Look after your health,  keep fit, and think through your finances, but don’t let these practical considerations obscure the more basic values of your life, so take time to discover where your heart is.  Don’t move too fast—a year of travel or study, combined with reflection, may make a useful transition.  Don’t let a warmer climate or convenient and moderately priced housing tempt you to move away from family and friendship and environments where you can continue to make a contribution.  Beyond that, I believe that some form of life review is useful, simply because we all have resources and memories of coping that can be resources in
adjusting to a new stage of life.   
 
Q: You say that composing a further life involves thinking about the entire process of composing a life and the way in which early experience connects to later.  How have these years made you reflect differently on your own life?
A:
They have changed my priorities and made me aware of continuities that might once have seemed incidental—for instance, I have become aware of a thread of continuing interest in how differences between individuals and between groups can be bridged, starting from research some forty years ago about communication between mothers and newborn infants and played out today in an interest in intergenerational communication and in addressing the misunderstandings of Islam in our own culture.  Looking back, I find I have a very different set of criteria for success and for what has been worth doing—often activities which are regarded as irrelevant to professional careers. This kind of looking backward affects choices I make now—what I choose to write about and what invitations I accept—since the meaning of any story tends to be affirmed by its ending.  We compose the story of our lives as we continue to live them, learning along the way and reflecting more deeply. I look backward with some regrets but above all with gratitude and forward with hope.

Praise

Praise

“The kind of life-altering perspective we expect from Bateson. . . . She champions the virtues of discontinuity—the growth spurts, the sudden illuminations.” —Los Angeles Times

 “One of the wisest people on the planet has written one of the finest books on the later years of life.” —Jean Houston, author of A Mythic Life

“Bateson has used her unique vision and insight to light up the many facets of the ‘Further Life,’ giving us a whole fresh way to look at this new frontier of longevity.” —Jane Fonda
 
“An exquisite and wonderfully readable book about composing a further life, one that is entering its richest phase. Whether life begins at thirty, fifty, or eighty, the wisdom she conveys will make each of the reader’s days a fuller one.” —Harvey Cox, author of The Future of Faith

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