A decade ago I came across a statistic that affects everyone’s future. Actuaries predicted that for Caucasian women in California without arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), the average life expectancy was 100. What this means is that when a woman in that subgroup reaches age fifty, a second lifetime has opened up. The first fifty years is already a known quantity: a person is born, passes to adulthood, finds a partner, and raises children. Empty nesting has already begun by age fifty or is on the horizon. Most people have a secure social position by that age, and their finances, whether good or bad, are more or less set.
But no such certainty applies to the next fifty years. What do you expect your second lifetime to be? Can you envision a rising arc of expectations after you turn fifty? That’s the challenge facing each of us as well as society as a whole. The current turmoil over deficits and entitlements centers on taking care of the elderly, yet few realize how profound a shift has occurred. Life expectancy has risen every decade in modern times; now the Japanese lead the world with an overall life expectancy of 82.3 years, with the U.S. well down the list at 78.3 years. However, these figures are measured from birth. Your chances of living a very long time increase the older you get, so that a 70-year-old has a better chance of living to be 80 than a younger person.
To come to terms with our extending years, society has focused on two measures. One is economic. We have to figure out how to house and care for an aging population. The other is medical. In 2004 the elderly (65+ years) amounted to 12% of the population but 34% of health costs, about 5 times more than for children. This figure skews dramatically in the final years of life; about 25% of all the medical care a person pays for over a lifetime is laid out for their final illness, the one, ironically, that they will not survive. As everyone has heard by now, the disproportion of medical care for the aged is going to take off as baby boomers, now in their sixties, get even older.
But what about two other factors that are less talked about: quality of life and spiritual growth. We no longer sit our aging population in rocking chairs and expect them to stay on the sidelines. The “new old age” has been with us for at least two decades, which defines old age as a positive and active time of life. Baby boomers, who are famous for wanting the best lifestyle at every age, extend this expectation far beyond earlier generations. When asked by pollsters to name the year that old age begins, the average answer from baby boomers was 85! No doubt you have noticed if you read the obituaries that those who die between 65 and 75, which seemed normal a few decades ago, now seem to have been taken away at a shockingly young age.
Making reality fit this new picture isn’t difficult, either. A measurement known as biological age tells you how young your body is as compared to your calendar age (quizzes for this can be easily found online). For someone who follows positive lifestyle habits — regular exercise, good diet, sufficient sleep, reduced stress, and maintaining proper weight — biological age can be ten years under calendar age as a matter of course. So a generation that sees old age moving further and further away is making that expectation come true.
All of this has been a preamble to the big question: What will your second lifetime be like? I think that is ultimately a spiritual question. In the Indian tradition, a life span was divided into four stages, or ashramas. The fourth ashrama dictated that old people retreated into solitary contemplation. Worldly possessions and family were left behind. A small hut in the forest or other ascetic place was sought, and there a lifetime’s spiritual aspirations came true. Leaving aside the parts that don’t apply to modern lifestyles, the last point hasn’t changed over the centuries. Well-being isn’t complete until a person’s spiritual aspirations have been fulfilled. In our society we speak about this almost not at all. But experience tells us that a condo in Florida and a regular pension check don’t constitute a fulfilled life–quite the opposite much of the time.
Looking toward the horizon of old age, which is rapidly approaching for almost everyone I know, as well as for society as a whole, I wonder what spiritual changes are afoot. This is a rich enough country to solve the economic and medical challenges of old age, however twisted and rancorous the path that will get us there. But we are also creative spiritually. That creativity has been emerging for some time. A certain sector of the population has looked beyond consumerism and politics, the two subjects that crowd newspapers and television. As they age, people naturally find that outside interests begin to pall. There’s only so much juice you can extract from getting and spending, working and consuming, entertaining yourself and socializing with others.
It’s a fantasy to trust that these preoccupations last forever, or that they bring deep fulfillment. Eventually the time to seek a spiritual retreat comes to everyone, and if the call isn’t answered, old age can be empty and lonely. Retreat isn’t physical. It’s an inner state, one that brings time to the very edge of the timeless. In a materialistic society like this one, the turn inward can be scary, even terrifying. We have no shared model for the fourth ashrama. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t build one. The desire is growing, the only means required is time and the will to see who you really are. I don’t know how many people will develop such a will, but it’s certain that millions will have the time.