We like to think that in days gone by, the young venerated the elderly. But that wasn't always so. Developmental psychologists, when they treated old age at all, often regarded it as a period of withdrawal. The elderly slowly separate themselves from the world. They cannot be expected to achieve new transformations.
Well, that was wrong. Over the past few years, researchers have found that the brain is capable of creating new connections and even new neurons all through life. While some mental processes -- like working memory and the ability to quickly solve math problems -- clearly deteriorate, others do not. Older people retain their ability to remember emotionally nuanced events. They are able to integrate memories from their left and right hemispheres. Their brains reorganize to help compensate for the effects of aging.
A series of longitudinal studies, begun decades ago, are producing a rosier portrait of life after retirement. These studies don't portray old age as surrender or even serenity. They portray it as a period of development -- and they're not even talking about uber-oldsters jumping out of airplanes.
People are most unhappy in middle age and report being happier as they get older. This could be because as people age they pay less attention to negative emotional stimuli, according to one study. Gender roles begin to merge. Many women get more assertive while many men get more emotionally attuned. Personalities often become more vivid as people become more of what they already are.
One of the keys to healthy aging is what George Vaillant of Harvard calls "generativity" -- providing for future generations. Seniors who perform service for the young have more positive lives and better marriages than those who don't. As Vaillant writes in his book "Aging Well," "Biology flows downhill." We are naturally inclined to serve those who come after and thrive when performing that role.
The odd thing is that when you turn to political life, we are living in an age of reverse-generativity. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.
Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control.
Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of GDP. By 2019, it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities. Already, pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.
In the private sphere, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades.
I used to think that political leaders could avert fiscal suicide. But it's now clear change will not be led from Washington.
On the other hand, over the past couple of years we've seen the power of spontaneous social movements: first, the movement that formed behind Barack Obama, and now, equally large, the Tea Party movement.
It now seems clear that the only way America is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. Only the old can lead a generativity revolution -- millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.
It may seem unrealistic -- to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. But in the private sphere, you see it every day. Old people now have the time, the energy and, with the Internet, the tools to organize.
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE