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.
Read the rest of ‘Bold Rage‘ at Griffith Review.
Ingrid Burkett is a social designer, designing processes, products and knowledge that deepen social impact and facilitate social innovation. She has contributed to the design of policy and processes in a diversity of fields, including community development, local economic development, disability, procurement and social investment.
Ingrid is Co-Director of The Yunus Centre at Griffith University