Better or wiser?

Advocacy for aging and a campaign for intergenerational justice.

It isn’t a surprise that Baby Boomers, my generation, are redefining aging. We have the numbers, influence and ethos to challenge the status quo and make change. Many of the changes will make conditions better for seniors; but better in this context, may not mean wiser. Some advocacy for the aging leaves me with nagging doubts, even though I am an aging person and I am inclined to support social progress for many different groups in society.

Readers of Christian Courier will not be surprised by the claim in a new book that what we believe about aging directly affects the outcomes for aging people. The real-life impacts of our beliefs is part of our cultural DNA. Dr. Becca Levy marshals substantial evidence to prove this in her book: Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs about Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. It is a Boomer’s guidebook for personal choices and advocacy for social change.

Tackle Ageism

Levy shows that positive attitudes toward aging lead to better outcomes in four practical areas. She debunks stereotypes about “senior moments” to show that memory loss is not automatic. Positive attitudes result in better functional health, such as capacity to care for oneself, and better mental health. According to her research they extend life by an average of 7.5 years.

More importantly, the book tackles structural ageism in society and equips readers to challenge damaging stereotypes. I agree; we should challenge health care assumptions that dismiss concerns as “just aging.” We need to reform discriminatory age-based workplace policies, retirement policies and public policies that constrict or reduce expectations of what older people can do. So why am I not taking up her campaigns?

Grannies for Children

A small reason is the book’s failure to consider evidence that runs counter to some of its hypotheses. My greater concern is intergenerational fairness. Maybe I am overly alert to the mess my generation is leaving for the next generation – even if boomers are getting serious about climate change. My generation needs to stand up for young people, whose interests lose out to the senior vote at all levels of our democracy. I am more inclined to form a Grannies for Children campaign than join an advocacy group for seniors. Levy does encourage activism for social justice as one thing seniors should do, but the book avoids hard questions about priorities when there is tension between valid needs and resources for different groups in society. This tension leads to tough questions, such as giving up some age-based benefits (e.g. seniors discounts) that may no longer be justifiable, to reallocate resources to low-income young families.

I worry that advocacy for aging might lead to an even greater distortion of resources being allocated to seniors rather than to developing the full potential of the next generation. I worry about leaving the next generation a world of reduced opportunities because of my generation’s choices. I find myself wondering how a campaign for intergenerational justice might differ from a campaign that focuses only on aging. It seems wiser to me.


  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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  1. Thank you Kathy for this challenging article “Better or Wiser.” You didn’t mention the ‘G’ words, but I had to confront my own greed as I read. Many of us baby boomers are financially secure, and we don’t need all the perks and benefits that come our way which, I for one, readily accept. I also had to face the guilt associated with my participation in a way of living that has damaged so many people, creatures and places. I need to change in order to be wiser.

  2. A generation or two before me, many needed the senior discounts. My father who has a small pension considers himself blessed and his income sufficient. He considers me to be living very well having a full career pension. I find I have more disposable income and greater discretionary spending than when I was employed.
    Definitely a much needed discussion.

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