On Becoming Good Ancestors

For those of us in the baby boomer generation, our legacy is not turning out the way we had planned. On our watch, the gap between rich and poor has turned into a chasm, our public schools have become re-segregated and our confidence in institutions is at an all-time low. And that’s just for starters. We’re literally coming apart.

Moreover, given that our generation is living longer—much longer—we’re fast becoming a demographic tsunami that can overwhelm our social security system and saddle future generations with record levels of debt. It now appears that we’ve been better at tearing things down than building them up.

But our very longevity brings with it unmatched potential in the form of an “experience dividend.” Organizations such as Encore.org, initiatives such as AARP Experience Corps and university-led programs such as the Association of Retirement Organizations in Higher Education are leading the way in helping boomers to both navigate this new and as yet unnamed stage in life and find ways to give back.

Yet, we’re far away from realizing the full extent of this experience dividend and getting the most out of our generation’s talents. On the individual level, we’re in need of trailblazers. On the organizational and systemic levels, we need to build new structures. We’re leaving a vast amount of human resources on the table.

What is most needed now, at this very moment, is a leading cohort of elder “changemakers”— those creative persons who can build on the long tradition of American ingenuity— to create new pathways and new structures. These are the people who, according to David Brooks in a February 2018 editorial in the New York Times, “can see the patterns around them, identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve the problem, organize fluid teams, lead collective action and then continually adapt as situations change.”

Come to think of it, these are the very qualities and skills that we as older persons possess in abundance! We’re naturals at seeing patterns and solving problems. We can think systemically. We’ve participated in all kinds of teams. We bring perspective and judgment to what we do.

Furthermore, our brains are better wired for emotional balance now than at any point in our lives. We have the capacity to hold two contradictory notions in our minds at once. We’ve arrived at a certain comfort with ambiguity. We are what Laura Carstensen, the director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, calls “even-minded people.” In a word, we possess wisdom—in the form of a broad perspective on the world, sound judgment and keen insight. This is our generational secret sauce.

Does this sound like Williams College alumni? Yes it does. We are a valuable source of energy waiting to be harnessed.  What better way to prepare for changemaking than to gather some of us of liberally educated geezers around a few innovative service projects? All we need to do is organize ourselves—perhaps by coming together in hubs like San Francisco, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. (to name just a few), perhaps even enlisting colleagues from Amherst and Wesleyan.

In his seminal book, Aging Well, George Vaillant brilliantly summarizes the results of three longitudinal studies that comprised the Harvard Study of Adult Development conducted in the past century, each tracking human development from youth to old age. One tracked 250 Harvard College graduates (classes of 1938-42). Another from Stanford University tracked 90 women in California. And a third focused on nearly 1,000 lower-income men in the Boston area.

What these studies signal to me, both on a personal and professional level, is that health in the “third chapter” of life (formerly known as old age) is bundled into the following habits: social connectivity; a disposition that is future-oriented; a commitment beyond one’s own self; deep gratitude; and perhaps most important of all, mentoring the generations that follow, what the psychologist Erik Erikson called “generativity.”

It’s not too late for us to change the world. As a generation we’re an extraordinarily large cohort. Ten thousand of us are reaching retirement age every day, and the life-expectancy of a 70-year old is 86. Furthermore, many of us Williams College alumni are eager to trade in some of our material possessions for a greater sense of purpose.

Let’s be sure to add changemaking to our bucket list! Let’s set our course on becoming good ancestors.

Clint Wilkins ’68 spent his entire adult life in the good company of teenagers, mainly as a high school principal, serving such schools as Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., and Sage Hill School in Southern California, where he was founding head and caught the social entrepreneur bug. He is currently well into his “encore career”—as the co-founder of the Resilient Aging Lab, a San Francisco-based initiative that assists aging boomers in discovering the tools, the confidence and the social connections they need to transition successfully into what are commonly and anachronistically known as “the retirement years.”