All the Time in the World?

If we cling to old definitions of a future no one can pretend to predict, we are still going to age. But we will have been complicit and ultimately powerless by refusing to choose how we will age in the 21st Century. It's time we all thought about that.
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She's waiting for her envelope, in which sits a letter, telling her how many years she has left to live. The policy was created in response to overpopulation. So, age is no longer an increasing number, it's a decreasing one.

And her time left has been determined by a slew of tests. Her countdown is predicated on exam results and the duration of her life will be decided on what "the rulers" deem to be her: merits, intelligence, looks and charisma. So far, so contemporary.

This disturbing, dystopian look at society was the basis of a 500 word short story written by a 13 year old girl, Susannah Ames and it was the winning entry for last year's competition. The contest is now in its fifth year and championed by Chris Evans, it's BBC Radio 2's 500 word- short-story-contest. Last year there were over 117,000 entries in the 5-9 and 10-13 age categories. As it surges from strength to strength, I've heard from one of last years judges that there were even more entries this year.

How the scores of librarians, teachers and authors whittle them down to the eventual winners, is a modern day miracle, but they do and brilliantly. So, the wait is on and this years victors will be announced on the 29th of May. But today, almost a year later, I still can't get her story out of my head.

At one point, she explains that she doesn't know who or what to believe from the "rulers " and she's afraid to say anything against them. "....It's not the end of the world, but it could be the end of my world". The parallels to today feel almost prophetic in our world, where younger generations have been taught to fear their own old age.

And that needs re-examined. As it becomes increasingly self evident that we are living longer, we have a solid opportunity to embrace new possibilities instead of believing in a narrative that focuses on limitations. Otherwise, we could effectively squander all this new longevity, potentially an extra 30 years of life. And that would be pretty irresponsible. Age is our most outstanding cultural, scientific and technological achievement. We are at the point where education has become a better predictor of life expectancy, than age.

So what's happening now is that we are re-entering a time that used to be normal, where you remained a productive member of society, for life. That was before it was decided -- for us -- that we had to remove ourselves from the workforce. In case you were wondering, we've got Bismarck to thank for retirement and for making the call that old age begins at 65. In effect, he decided that was when old age began and when governments should plan to start paying people for growing old.

Pensions are a pretty recent invention too. The Old Age Pensions Act in the UK passed in 1908 and in the US with the Sherwood Act but that only applied to veterans. It wasn't until 1935 that a solution to the problem of convincing people to stop working was discovered - you have to pay them. And we all know that formula isn't working because it doesn't make sense anymore.

Unlike the girl in the short story, the greater the age we attain, the less our successes can be linked to what pleases "the rulers." With increasing age, success gets unhinged from merits, intelligence, looks or charisma. There comes a time when career success and degrees matter less and camaraderie matters more. Physical decline can be postponed but not forever and charisma - while seductive- needs to be balanced with authenticity and empathy.

And why would we opt out and ignore this talent, particularly when emotional life improves with age and we get happier! The value in ageing comes through converting accumulated experience and wisdom into new pursuits which are equal to our full potential.

This idea is at the core of a movement for social change called The Age Of No Retirement. and it is not about frogmarching older people into working longer against their will! It's about living fully across the entire life course; changing the negative language that surrounds ageing; co-designing future workplaces and communities and appreciating multiple generations living and working together. Today, we already have four, five and six generation families living at the same time.

Right now, we act like the people this 13 year old described in her 500 words. With 24/7 news and the ubiquity of social media, we have become expert spectators, collectively passive and stumbling into the new longevity. If we cling to old definitions of a future no one can pretend to predict, we are still going to age. But we will have been complicit and ultimately powerless by refusing to choose how we will age in the 21st Century. It's time we all thought about that.

Maybe it would be easier if the choice was taken out of our hands but the reality is stark in its simplicity.

There isn't any envelope.

Deborah Gale

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