The association of old age with decline has a long history. To work or do anything demanding during the traditional retirement years is often considered cute at best and depressing at worst. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith called these reactions the “Still Syndrome.”
“The Still Syndrome is the design by which the young or the less old daily assail the old. ‘Are you still well?’ ‘Are you still working?’ ‘I see that you are still taking exercise.’ ‘Still having a drink?’ As a compulsive literatus I am subject to my own special assault, ‘I see you are still writing.’ ‘Your writing still seems pretty good to me.’ The most dramatic general expression came from a friend I hadn’t seen for some years: ‘I can hardly believe you’re still alive!’ ”
I reread Galbraith’s essay the other day while thinking about the age of key political players during the recent election. President-elect Joe Biden is 77 and President Donald Trump is 74. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 80; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78. Whatever your politics, their energy and vigor is unmistakable.
The same observation holds for many artists. The novelist Marilynne Robinson, age 76, published the fourth volume of her award-winning Gilead books this year. Bruce Springsteen, age 71, recently released with the E Street Band the studio album “Letter to You.”
Creativity and inventiveness don’t fade with the accumulation of birthdays. The creative impulse often improves with time and experience, not just in the arts but in the skilled trades, the professions and many other occupations. Which is one reason among many why age discrimination is so pernicious and wrong, especially on the job and when looking for work.
The pandemic recession has hit hard workers of all ages. In the latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Till von Wachter, professor of economics at UCLA, offers several useful lessons for young adults looking for their first job during the pandemic. I modified a few of his insights since I thought they also hit the mark for older workers in hard times:
1. Your next job after being involuntarily laid off or voluntarily retiring may not be what you had expected, but that’s OK.
2. If you don’t want to be locked into that first job continue to accumulate general skills and look for opportunities to move to other jobs.
3. Maintain a healthy lifestyle and be kind to yourself, in part because it will help you weather difficult initial labor market conditions.
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, “Marketplace;” commentator, Minnesota Public Radio.