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Looking for Heroes? Many of Them Are in the AARP Generation.

Resource type: News

The Washington Post |

By Abigail Trafford

“The president believes it’s always the young who lead,” said David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Obama, during the president’s recent trip to Europe.

One of the goals of the trip was to generate more leadership among young people on global issues, Axelrod explained. “The young are best equipped to break old barriers and build new understandings for the future. It’s a fundamental belief that the future belongs to the young, and the young are going to lead us forward. . . . [Young people are the generation] where the energy and the ferment is.”

Oh, really? Nothing wrong with galvanizing young people to get involved in politics. Standard fare to get the world moving again!

But who are the dashing heroes of the moment?

Richard Phillips, captain of the Maersk Alabama, who defied the Somali pirates, saving his crew: age 53.

Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed his plane in the icy Hudson River, saving all passengers and crew: age nearly 58. And the three flight attendants who marshaled the evacuation of the sinking plane: ages 51, 57 and 58.

Those heroes are all eligible for membership in AARP. In the labor force, they are known as older workers. Sully Sullenberger has gray-white hair. Richard Phillips has two college-age children.

They are not young.

Yet our political rhetoric and popular culture are so focused on youth that the dark virus of ageism is allowed to spread — as though after a certain age, our moment in history is over and we are no longer useful. Young is synonymous with fresh and dynamic, old is tagged with stale and dull. Young is hot, old is not.

Perhaps 100 years ago, when life expectancy was about 50, there weren’t so many older people around, and they didn’t have much of a future. But today, as people live longer, healthier lives, the 50-plus generation has a future. Thanks to major increases in health span — additional years of healthy life — older men and women are biologically fitter than the generation of their grandparents. They can land damaged airplanes and survive an attack by pirates on the high seas.

Every year, Civic Ventures, a nonprofit agency in San Francisco, awards a Purpose Prize to men and women older than 60 who have helped solve social problems, from resettling refugees from Iraq and Somalia in Fargo, N.D., to cutting the recidivism rate among young offenders in New York. According to the Civic Ventures Web site, these role models of aging are “fashioning a new vision of the second half of life, one in which the expertise and talent of a lifetime is refocused on finding solutions to challenges in our communities, our country, and the world.”

Indeed, today’s generation of oldsters may be, to use Axelrod’s words, the “best equipped to break old barriers and build new understandings for the future.” This generation has the experience and longevity’s gift of post-career time to break down old barriers to the American dream by mentoring children in school, providing services for the sick and frail, building houses in the wake of hurricanes and floods.

After official retirement, people often bring a fresh understanding to community problems. Older people may not have the physical energy to build bridges and roads, but they have the emotional stamina to build up the country’s social infrastructure.

The generation “where the energy and ferment is” today is the cohort of men and women who are past midlife. They are pioneers in a new life stage that has emerged after middle age but before traditional old age. (I call this stage My Time because it is up to each of us to carve a new pathway in this uncharted territory of longevity.)

Sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at Harvard University, describes this new phase as “the years between 50 and 75, the generative space that follows young adulthood and middle age.” As she writes in her new book, “The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), this period “may, in fact, be the most transformative and generative time in our lives.” She explores “the ways in which wisdom, experience and new learning inspire individual growth and cultural transformation.”

It is time to put aside the generational battle pitting young against old and tap into this new generation of life’s veterans as a source of leadership. When President Obama repeats his campaign mantra: “This is our generation. This is our time,” I envision a generation defined by common purpose, not by age; a multi-generation of the old and wise along with the young and restless.

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