We Now Have a 4th Stage of Existence, and it may be the end of us all.

We need a new plan for the last 30 years of life.

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

There are, in a manner of speaking, 3 stages to life, and each lasts roughly 20 to 25 years: Youth, The Middle, and Old Age.

The first 20 years of life are spent in Development. You are born tiny and helpless and empty, a vessel for hunger and need. You grow, but more importantly, you LEARN. You learn to move, to crawl and then walk and then run and jump. You learn to speak, you learn to think. You learn and you learn and you learn. The average 3-year-old acquires a new word every 20 minutes. In 16 years, a human being goes from a vocabulary of one (the ‘waaaa!’) to 15,000. That’s a thousand new words a year (and with a peripheral ability to change and order words in near-infinite variety).

That’s just language. There’s also number sense, history, culture, music, narrative, diet, danger, rules, games, grasping, psychology, cooking, art. There’s the body itself and all the things it’s capable of. There’s our machines and all they are capable of. A near-endless ocean of things to learn.

The learning never really stops, but eventually it becomes Purpose. One emerges from development into independence and the building of a new life. The nest, the home, the job, the kids, the relationships. You find work, start saving money, move forward and all that. Get married, have a kid or two, buy a new car, a home, furniture. By some estimates, over 70% of a worker’s wage increases happen in the first ten or fifteen years at the job.

Then the kids move away, the career advancements settle into some kind of holding pattern, attention shifts to longer vacations and often enough ever-expanding peripheral hobbies. One becomes, hopefully, wise. Business is managed, grown, improved. The third part of life, roughly from the late 40s and into one’s 60s, is spent knowing one’s role in the world, living with purpose on the ground you’ve created, in the house you’ve built, among the people you’ve cultivated. This is when you tear out and replace the kitchen, buy the vacation home, embrace hobbies and join book clubs. You watch your investments start to make real money and wonder why you didn’t save more when you were younger.

It’s a period of quiet action, and of teaching. (If you are over 40 years old, you may recall a time when most of your teachers were OLD, because teaching has until recently been what the old do, pass along what they’ve learned through those years on the planet.) It is a time, really, of sharing. The grandkids spend nights or weeks, and as they get older maybe even the financial burden of some of their education is shouldered. The newlyweds are helped along.

It used to be that these phases of a life ran 20 years each, but scientific, technological, and medical advancements have stretched both life expectancy and the length of our stages. Education once reliably ended for most at 18 years of age, if not sooner. Work, real work, began almost immediately. And retirement, at 55 or 60, was less an extended reward for a lifetime of work as a brief final relaxation just before death. People once retired because they were simply worn out, not because they’d earned anything.

In the 21st century, a young person can expect to be in school well into their 20’s, start a family around their 30th birthday, and retire closer to 70 than 50. Some of this is attributable to extended life expectancy. Some to a greater demand for education in an information-driven world. Some to economic and demographic and cultural changes.

But that’s a young person.

There’s an entire generation, or several, who have stopped working. They have stopped learning, they have stopped building, and they have stopped sharing. A profound shift has occurred with our elderly, a shift directly related to our prioritizing amassed capital wealth over all else. Because besides the top 1%, the elderly now hold the most capital wealth.

And they aren’t sharing. Speaking in generalities. If you die at 60, your inheritance goes to a 40-year-old kid whose own kids are entering adulthood. That money and house you’ve acquired over years of work gets plowed back into continuing life, back into society. It pays for advanced education, house and business improvement, age-related medical expenses, and luxuries. It feeds back into accumulated savings intended to provide an end of life safety net.

But today, the elderly retire at 60 and live another 30 years. Their accumulated wealth, generating interest or rent, paying out with no commitment to future generations, doesn’t pass on. If it does, it passes on just as their own children are nearing retirement. A 90-year-old’s amassed wealth (what’s left of it) goes to a 65-year-old who does the same things with it: bigger houses, retirement communities of the similarly old, cruises, hoarding (my god the hoarding), and an expanding-universe of medical expense.

Car sales, restaurants, cruises, hotels, tourist destinations, new cars and new homes and more homes to rent, investments. Luxury luxury luxury. All are now dominated by the elderly to a degree that it’s what now drives the economy.

We have stumbled into a fourth stage of life that seems almost single-mindedly dedicated to selfishness. To ‘I earned it and it’s mine.’ To ‘I owe you nothing.’

All of this, of course, is a gross generalization. On the individual, personal level, many people might find these broad statements ‘not me’, if not insulting altogether. But this does not change the fundamental truth of the observation that a huge chunk of the population retires from work with 30 or more years of active life ahead. It does not change the fact that they hold the vast majority of wealth at a time when most of their financial foundational needs have already been built or managed: home and home essentials, transportation, savings, health care, and so on. And it does not change the fact that their obligation to the society in which they live is severed. They are neither forced to be a part of it through need or want, nor tied to it through children or work. If anything, that’s the whole point of retirement, to feed off the fruits of your hard-earned labor. To no longer have any commitments at all to anyone else in society.

On the individual level, many retired people are indeed still active and generous members of their community. But it needs to be said that they are not fundamentally wedded to the society we have constructed, of learners, builders, and managers. As selfishly individual as we might wish ourselves to be, the fact is that humanity is a collective species. It is our obligation to each other, not our individuality, that drives mankind forward. It is our social web that has created the world we live in today. The three stages of life that have defined us since before recorded time are not stages of individuality, but stages of obligation, either of others to us when we are children, or us to others as we age.

It may well be that the retired have truly earned their divorce from any obligation to society. They have, after all, spent decades working. But I’m not sure we’ve truly come to understand the implications for our future.

just another frustrated teacher

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