Ageing offers spiritual, missional opportunities

Professor Simon Biggs looks at the issues facing an increasing global population over 60

By Simon Biggs

January 10 2018While there has been much recent public debate over the ethics of ‘assisted dying’, other questions about the purpose of a long life, how generations should get along with each other and the role of belief and spirituality receive little attention. Professor of Gerontology Simon Biggs reflects on these vital questions facing humanity in the 21st Century.

In 2050, the global population aged over 60 will reach two billion, making this age group three times larger than it was in 2000. This is a challenge that is facing both developed and emerging economies, and the debate on the future shape of a long life is one that is key to social development in the 21st century.

Almost all societies are moving from a population shaped like a triangle, to one shaped like a column. That is to say that in traditional societies, where a lot of children are born but die relatively quickly, and with many adults also dying in early midlife – through poor health care, during childbirth and the greater likelihood of physical threats and accidents – the population profile tapers off pretty quickly, with only a few elders surviving to the top of the age pyramid.

In modern societies, however, people are having fewer children and living longer, which will eventually create a population in which each age group is of approximately the same size. So the challenge boils down to two main issues. The first is mostly personal and concerns asking, ‘What is the purpose of this gift of a long life?’ The second is intergenerational: ‘how do we adapt to a society where generations will be approximately the same size?’

Is working longer the answer?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) thinks it has found the answer. The title of their 2006 report boils the argument down to this: ‘Ageing and employment policies. Live longer, work longer’. It’s a position that has since been adopted in most national and international policy arenas, including the Australian Treasury’s Intergenerational reports.

According to this view, work enhances health in later life, ensures people continue to be part of society, boosts the economy and reduces reliance on social wages such as pensions and disability benefits. So from an economic point of view it offers a virtuous circle of more people in work, more tax revenue and fewer pension claimants.

While working longer may certainly reduce government expenditure, and a healthy long life allows people to work longer, it cannot be said that working longer necessarily keeps people healthy. Further, research shows that it is the quality of work and the workplace that determines people’s willingness to continue working.

The answer to the purpose of a long life from the economic perspective is effectively ‘more of the same’ in terms of the life course and for intergenerational relations – competition in the job market. In fact, Scott Bass, a founding promotor of what has been called “productive ageing” has specifically excluded belief and spiritual pursuits from its definition. He states: “Meditation, religious reflection, personal growth, reminiscence... and education for expressive purposes are all outside the definition of productive ageing.”

Belief and spirituality to the rescue?

So does belief and spirituality offer an alternative answer to our two questions? Here we can turn to Rowan Williams for a different perspective. In his book Faith in the Public Square, Williams argues that: “We have to develop a view of human flourishing and human justice that is not content with the criteria of producing and consuming alone. Properly understood, a positive attitude to ageing is an act of faith in human freedom from the mechanical processes of work and the anxieties that go with this.”

In fact there is evidence for the specialness of a long life. This has not been a secret to psychologists and psychotherapists such as Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, and more recently Lars Tornstam and his notion of ‘gerotranscendence’.

Here it is understood that later life has its own existential priorities and life tasks arising from a heightened awareness that we do not exist in this world forever; that what we need to do at sixty is different from what we need to do at sixteen, and that midlife has different priorities from deep old age. Indeed some writers, such as the American Harry Moody, and our own Elizabeth MacKinlay argue that spiritual development is a key element of growing into older age.

There is also an increasing, if underdeveloped, research literature showing that belief can actually be good for you. Positive links have been found between spirituality, health and well-being in later life. This may result from increased personal, rather than externally motivated sources of self-worth and greater self-confidence, plus an ability to put aside past resentments and disappointments.

In late adulthood, prayer and belief have been connected to well-being arising from positive relations with others, social and community engagement and concern for younger generations. They can also contribute to successful coping with chronic illness. The research is also showing that spirituality is positively related to personal growth, creativity, and knowledge-building.

According to the theologian Gordon Harris, Christianity must look mostly to the Old Testament for guidance. Here later life is often portrayed in interaction with younger generations, either to highlight appropriate and inappropriate forms of conduct between generations, or as a reward for a pious life. Mentoring is also seen as an important role for the elder.

Christianity, in common with the other Abrahamic faiths, places considerable emphasis on vulnerability as a particular aspect of old age and as an aspect of the human condition.

Closely related to that is the notion of empathic understanding: to be able, in other words, to put oneself in the shoes of the other. In intergenerational terms we need to understand the other, and not assume that other generations’ needs are the same as our needs. However, the dominant discourse on the need to work longer does not recognise vulnerability as a condition of being human and growing older, or the need for empathy.

Rowan Williams also says, regarding the special quality of a long life: “There comes a stage in peoples’ lives when they no longer have to justify their existence; when it is right and proper for them to spend time reflecting on what they have been and what they have done and trying to make better sense of it… Having time to ‘make your soul’… suggests that most of us in our working lives will have had little time to give substance and depth to who we really are.”

Jung commented in the 1950s that while there were no universities for the second half of life, we do have our churches. It is here that belief might hold a purpose for mid-life and beyond and break down the silos between generational groups.

Perhaps it is in in-between states, between old and new selves, younger and older adults, and between the material and the spiritual, that faith communities can make a distinct and possibly unique contribution to the cultural task ahead of us as intergenerational and long-lived societies. They hold the promise of experimenting with forms of relationships, based on love and care, that could help build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Dr Simon Biggs is Professor of Gerontology at Melbourne University and works at the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s Research and Policy Centre. This article is a shortened version of talks given to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St Peter’s Eastern Hill, and to the Anglicare Chaplaincy Network. Professor Bigg’s book Negotiating Ageing will be published by Routledge later this year.