Ken Gordon | Essays

Everyman and The Longevity Economy: Designing a New Narrative for Old Age

“Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” This is the line everyone remembers from Everyman, the 182-page novel published by Philip Roth in 2006. That novel is, of the many Roth books I love, the one I’ve never reread. Why? To be honest, Everyman unsettled me. I remember assigning it, years ago as the editor of JBooks.com, to emeritus professor Sanford Pinsker, a guy who once told me, “I have sweaters older than you!” In his review, Sandy said that old age “is also not for sissies, as Roth describes one ‘procedure’ after another. No doubt many readers will find all this just too depressing, and they will have a point. Everyman does not, indeed, it cannot, paint a rosy picture of what happens to our bodies while we’re not paying attention and the decades roll along.”

Roth’s unnerving narrative swam to mind when I recently read Joseph F. Coughlin’s The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market. Coughlin corrals all the stats and case studies and anecdotes he can to demonstrate to the business world that it must rethink aging because our relatively long lifespans—currently 85.5 for women and 82.9 for men in the U.S.—and the looming demographic kaboom (1 billion people in the 65-plus group by 2030; 1.6 billion by 2050) require it to redesign goods, services, and experiences for the latter part of life. Coughlin says the conventional narrative of old age has “already cost businesses untold losses in terms of failed launches, missed opportunities, and off-target products. Worse, because products and marketing reinforce social norm, the narrative’s prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Products that treat older adults merely as a needy, greedy headache to be taken care of, not an enormous group of people with diverse goals and motivations, remind us every day to be old is to be always a taker, never a giver; always a problem, never a solution.”

For Coughlin, aging is an opportunity, but to seize it, we need to change the story about getting older. Being old shouldn’t mean becoming a permanent patient or cruise-ship passenger; it should be a meaningful and productive time—one in which older people have every right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But to make that happen, to allow older people access to all levels of the Maslovian triangle, we must learn who they really are, and what they truly want and need.

He wants The Longevity Economy to be the new narrative of old age. The problem: The Longevity Economy is merely a book-length argument about “unlocking the world’s fastest-growing, most misunderstood market.” It’s chiefly about designing for and selling to older people, not about understanding them. To truly evolve the aging narrative, we must overwrite it with one that humanizes aging. For that we need… a legitimate piece of literature!

It’s not just the English major in me saying this; it’s science! The New York Times just reported on literary fiction’s power to create empathy. The paper said the journal Science found that “after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” I read this and thought: We should get Coughlin’s readers to read Everyman as well.

Note: In The Longevity Economy, Coughlin talks about AGNES, the empathy-inducing suit produced by the AgeLab. Wearing a suit that mimics some of the physical traits of age does seem like an effective way to immerse us in the life of the elderly—but as Coughlin says: AGNES isn’t for rent or sale (though some companies do offer comparable suits). To my mind, getting your entire business and/or design teams to read Everyman is a more cost-effective and scalable way to breed empathy for older people. Plus, it’s short enough that it can be read over a weekend, or during a long business flight.

Everyman is a multi-hued portrait of an older person’s entire life. It shows, via a series of emotional flashbacks, that old age involves a kind of continual time travel, in the vehicle of memory. There’s a kind of emotional imbrication that often gets washed away when we train our vision on older people. Everyman removes that filtering and gives us a much more holistic picture. We start to see and feel how a lifetime of experience informs old age.

The novel starts at the unnamed protagonist’s grave and rewinds the tape from there, putting you repeatedly with him in the hospital, into love affairs, at work, at home in domestic life and strife. It gives us the brief victories and lasting shames that made the man. It’s a sympathetic look at a man’s failures as a father, his betrayals as a husband, his sustained professional success as an advertising art director. We witness him cheating on his wife with a model in France. We see him in conflict with unforgiving grown sons, whom Roth describes as “[h]andsome men beginning to grow beefy and seemingly linked with each other as they’d been irreconcilably alienated from their dead father.”

Roth has an eye for both the loneliness of aging, and the limitations of our current means of dealing with it. For instance, his hero moves into a retirement community, and then realizes that being there is killing him. “Trying to pass more than a little time in the company of the Starfish Beach residents was unendurable,” writes Roth. “Unlike him, many were able not merely to construct whole conversations that revolved around their grandchildren but to find sufficient grounds for existence in the existence of their grandchildren. Caught in their company, he sometimes experienced loneliness in what felt like its purest form.” What an insightful read this is on the isolation of retirees (a group the author joined in 2012)! It suggests that some older people will want to find meaning in their own way, and that this might not be accepted or understood in our conventional, homogenized gated communities. The stark dramatization of loneliness in Roth’s hero at Starfish Beach is stunning. Such extreme and moving expressions of alienation are not, and cannot be, available in a well-meaning work of nonfiction.

We see Roth’s hero trying his hand at painting (the dream of many a retired ad man). He paints. He teaches a painting class. And then… he fails. And what a failure it is! “He had a library of oversized art books filling one wall of the studio; he had been accumulating and studying them all his life, but now he couldn’t sit in his reading chair and turn the pages of a single one of them without feeling ridiculous. The delusion—as he now thought of it—had lost his power over him, and so the books only magnified his sense of the hopelessly laughable amateur he was and of the hollowness of the pursuit to which he had dedicated his retirement.” I love this passage. It suggests not that, say, old age can be a golden time for the painter manqué to finally assume his vocation—but that older people can possess and act on self-knowledge.

You read Everyman and think: What if we were all given stories about how old age leads to wisdom? What if it were shown to be a time of disillusion, and more deliberate, conscious, realistic choices? In any case, Roth makes us realize how interesting and complicated older lives are. Memory and experience inform old age, and because the older you get, the less time you have, these both bring an existential pressure to life. Everyman forces you to recognize this, on some level, no matter what your current age is.

A narrative like Everyman is essential because it shakes us awake and reveals the multidimensionality of older people. Reading Roth, our imagination becomes capacious. So when we put down the book and meet, say, an older woman, we wonder: “What’s your story? How did you get to be you?” It invites us to divine what she’s thinking at this present moment. What she might want or dream. Everyman, a finely rendered work of art, gives depth and feeling to our notions of age, and—ideally—this will stick with us as we think about, encounter, and design for older people, a group we may all one day join.

In the meantime, I’m going to see what Sandy Pinsker is up to these days. I miss that guy.

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