"Shock of Gray": How old people will remake the world

People's increasing life spans could change everything from civil rights to globalization. Here's why

Published October 31, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

These days people are living longer lives than ever before. Ancient Romans expected to live an average of 25 years. Today, thanks to advanced medicine and nutrition, the worldwide average is 64. In all, we will enjoy 250 billion more years of life than if we had been born a century ago. Few people, of course, would argue that's a bad thing -- but, as more and more people get older, it means that our world is about to undergo some very dramatic changes.

According to journalist Ted C. Fishman's new book "Shock of Gray," those changes are already being felt in parts of the world. By reporting from cities that are ahead of the overall aging curve, Fishman deftly forecasts the larger problems that will soon consume the globe. Professionals and skilled laborers will be pushed out of their jobs before they can afford to retire, forcing many into service industries that pay a small fraction of their former salaries. Rural communities will struggle with acute aging as young people leave for the cities. That in turn will create opportunities for immigrants, thus accelerating globalization. Builders will need to accommodate more people with greater mobility issues, which will drive up costs for infrastructure. At the same time, scientists will continue to tweak the human life span to the point, perhaps one day, of near immortality.

We recently spoke with Fishman over the phone from his home in Chicago about how America treats its seniors, the "Silicon Valley of aging" and whether immortality is really possible.

You have a section title in your book called "Why We Don't Like Old People." Do you really think we don't?

I think it is true. In general, we don't like them because for people who are not in late life yet, late life remains a mystery. And it's a mystery fraught with danger. Lots of things start happening to people at age 60 and the people who are on the young side of that divide see those as frightening and threatening. But there's also another divide: We think very differently about people in our own lives who are above that age than we do about the general population above that age.

There's a notion that certain cultures do better by their elderly than we Americans do. You looked at this as a worldwide phenomenon. What did you conclude?

One of the really dumbfounding truths of the book is that very often the places that insist that they are the most loyal and faithful to their families are the places that do the most violence to them. As soon there are geographic distances, the things that once bound the family break up very rapidly. Almost all these very traditional places have driven down birthrates to among the lowest in the world. I think there's a relationship between the mythologies -- and expectations of people to be bound to their families -- and the desperation to escape those bonds.

What do we mean when we use the word "old"?

That depends on who we are and the age we are. When I spoke to people late in their career, they were talking about people who were retired as old. Then the early retirees would talk about the less-active retirees as old. There's ageism at every age. And it works in reverse, too. I was at a senior center where they were telling me about a dance where the 70-year-olds were dancing and a 90-year-old was on the balcony looking down. The senior center director said, "Why don't you go join in." And he goes, "Oh, those aren't my people."

As baby boomers start to approach the age of 65 in large numbers, do you foresee a civil rights movement for older adults, given that generation's history of activism?

There might be a civil rights movement, but people won't recognize it as a civil rights movement. They'll see it as an economic turf war. When you get the resources of a society, you get the respect. You can see this in Europe right now, where the population is somewhat older than it is here. The debt crisis has really caused a huge and quick reckoning with the crisis in pension funding and hundreds of thousands of people are coming into the street. They made promises to themselves and now they find that they can't keep those promises. In some ways, they're battling their past selves.

But they feel like they are fighting a younger generation.

Yeah, I think that's right. But in the long run the battle will not be for who gets what share of the public financing. It will be a more traditional civil rights issue, which is: Evaluate me on my abilities and my skills, not on my weaknesses. The older population is a hugely diverse one. If the image of an older person is going to be exclusively that of an enabled, sharp, cognitively with-it, older person who can work into their 70s and 80s, then we're ignoring a huge part of the population that will need our help.

You call Sarasota, Fla., the Silicon Valley of aging. How so?

Sarasota is the oldest large metropolitan area in the United States. I wanted to see how a community works that has an age demographic profile today that the rest of the country will have in a few years to come. There are all kinds of businesses devoted to giving people in late life the very best, most active, challenging, pleasurable social life they could possibly have. And it's not done for the older people, they are doing it for themselves too. They start endeavors to give their life new meaning. And all of these things are great tonics for longevity. But at the same time, a lot of the best things that happen to people in Sarasota happen to people who have means.

You argue that when wealthy nations started to age, that actually sped up globalization.

Right. Aging economies -- Japan and Europe and the United States -- are shopping the world for youth. The traditional workplace is changing to drive older people out -- the cost of healthcare and pensions weighs very heavily on global companies -- and places such as China have a population that it could send to the cities unburdened by age and the cost of age. Globalization really is a function of demographic change. When you go into beat-up, industrial towns you can feel it. You can see that older workers who used to be on the factory are now doing minimum-wage work at big-box stores on the edge of town. And then China has factories that contain tens of thousands of workers, without a single soul that's over 25 years old. And you think, the only important thing about these workers is their youth.

Well, that brings us to the primary tension of the book. On the one hand, we humans have become very effective at prolonging life. On the other hand, these prolonged lives are placing pressures on our resources that will become critical. So the question is, which should win, our prolonged lives or the resources?

I think the hands-down winner there is longer life. Especially longer, healthier life. So if you add up all the misgivings we have about a society that has far more older people and the challenges of age and ageism, they don't even compare to the gift of living longer and living healthier. This is what humankind has been devoted to since we could first mix a few herbs together. And we're there. So our challenge is to apply this kind of brilliance to the result that we've created, which is being an older society.

Our life span averages have leaped in the past century, as you point out, and I wonder if you think there's a point where we'll hit a ceiling. Now that you've read the science, is there really a possibility for immortality?

I only read the science as a layman and I can only tell you who I trust, which is based on emotional signals as much as empirical ones. I do think maybe eventually we'll be able to reengineer the human body so that it's some mix of mechanization and biological miracle and we live forever. But in the lifetime of anybody who's reading the book, I think there are big limits to the expansion of the human life span. Our genetic makeup is such that the genes that help us grow when we're young tend to turn against us as we get old.

You show there might be some incremental ways to extend our own lives.

My absolute favorite finding in the whole book is the life-prolonging effects of Spanish ham and other nitrated meats. I can't swear it's true, but I want to believe it.

That's your emotion getting in the way.

Right. Italians and Spaniards live a long life because they eat salami. I want to believe that. That would be a dream finding and there's some evidence. I'm sure some day I'll come upon contradictions, but I'm going with it for now. Actually, the truth is the things we do as individuals are important but they really pale in comparison to the social efforts we make on longevity, which are improving public health initiatives and literacy. Both of these things are such powerful prolongers of life. I think the other factor, which we haven't done a super job with, is sociability. A lot of the world's longest-living people live in places where society is very, very social and people can stay active and in social networks deep into old age.

That's more important than antioxidants?

I don't know, I'm not a scientist. But looking over all the places where longevity is more common, sociability is a telling characteristic. Antioxidants might be very promising, but this is the cycle of all promises of anti-aging -- hype and debunking, hype, debunking. But we do know what the sure things are. Public health, sociability and literacy.

You created a list of how aging works in general, when the body breaks down, and you begin at the age of 30. Why so young?

Thirty is when some things in the body start changing. You can see this with professional athletes. There is a winnowing out at key ages.

How old are you?

I'm 52.

Where does that put you in this continuum of young to old?

I'm still young enough to deny a lot of things about old age. When I do look in the mirror I am shocked that I don't look 15 years younger. But working on the book did make me pay attention to the ticks and tocks quite intensely. Now when I walk down the street I really do see a different unfolding of the people around me -- about their ages. Actually, working on the book has confused me a little bit about how old I am. Once you start seeing it, you start having affinities with people at every age.

We have this ideal of aging gracefully. Your mother is in the book and she is a delightful representation of this ideal. What can you learn from your mother?

Well, my mom is on the lucky side of the dependency divide. She took care of my father, but he was ill and dependent for 16 years after a long and brilliant and vital career. She was his primary caregiver. She stayed upbeat, found purpose in his care and then when he died, she embraced life as fully as she could. When she was out with her friends in Chicago, she would say, "Look at us, aren't we terrific? We're in our 80s and we're still going." That's a very wonderful woman to have as your mother.

How is she doing now?

She's doing great. She's nearly 84 and she's getting on a plane to Italy tomorrow.

By Michael Humphrey

Michael Humphrey is a former editorial fellow at Salon. He is a contributor to Forbes.com and currently teaches at Colorado State University.

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