Two Cheers for Old Age

In a couple of years’ time half of all federal employees in Canada will be eligible for retirement. Whether they go through with it or not, they can’t get around it – they will, sooner or later, face the twilight years.

The Japanologist Florian Coulams reported in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of April 9 that the Japanese are exhausted because they are “suffering from an excessively high life expectancy.” (He does not tell us what he means by “excessive.”) To convey to the public that old age is not necessarily a bed of nails but can be a bowl of cherries, Tokyo bookstores are crowded with titles such as Courage to Live, The Power of Age, Ninety-one: Happy and No Regrets, Conversations about Happy Old Age, and Advice from a Centenarian. Similar books are available everywhere.

The March issue of the “Report on Business” of the Toronto Globe and Mail tells us that an aging work force might actually be a boon to some companies. “Ingenuity is not the sole domain of the young,” the paper writes, quoting Kirsten Tisdale, one of the managing directors of Korry/Ferry International in Vancouver. After all, Newton was forty, very old in his time, when he wrote the Principia, and Frank Lloyd Wright gave us Fallingwater, possibly his most impressive design, when he was seventy. What counts, Kirsten Tisdale said, was not youth but learning agility, thirst for knowledge and the ability to adapt.

David Galenson, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, has come to the conclusion that different kinds of creative thinking happen at different ages. Some of the greatest innovations “are based on long chains of experimentation and therefore usually emerge only after many years of work.” People like Mondrian, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and Robert Frost worked well past retirement age.

Wagner was a late starter. He was thirty when he conducted his first successful opera, The Flying Dutchman. (He was nearly seventy when he composed his last opera, Parsival.) In the world of music the prime example of a composer who achieved great work in old age was Verdi. He composed Otello and Falstaff in his eighties.

In the world of painting the winner is Titian. The date of his birth is unknown but he was thought to be in his late eighties, still very active, when he was killed by the plague.

The only first-class writer revered by most of us who kept on writing beyond his ninetieth birthday was George Bernard Shaw. He died while writing his last play – Why She Would Not – at ninety-four.

He might have lived longer if she would have.

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16 responses to “Two Cheers for Old Age

  1. Very promising, but you forgot to add Eric Koch.

  2. David Schatzky

    It would be reassuring if the examples of late-flowering fulfillment were of unexceptional people, rather than the noteworthy. Languishing in long-term care facilities are mostly the ordinary and the forgotten. And amongst them are some who blossomed brilliantly until they were in their 70’s and then “lost it”. It’s not only attitude which determines whether one will have a vibrant autumn of life followed by a cheery winter. This is realism, not pessimism!

    Nevertheless, Ellen is right. Erich Koch belongs on that list of inspirational icons!

  3. Horace Krever

    Eric certainly belongs in the club. So, I believe does one of my favourite writers, the erudite Jacques Barzun.

  4. I also revere him. Could it be true that he was born in 1907 and is still with us?

  5. 1. Surely the grammatically correct version of that last sentence is ‘he might have lived longer if she had’, despite loss of that nice parallel with the play’s title. I find the formula ‘I would have done x if she would have done Y’ distressing. I am also not sure where it comes from (though it is much more common than it used to be) – neither French nor German provides a model.

    2. Wikipedia thinks that Jacques Barzun is still alive, and it knows everything (unless Eric K knows different.) (I will defend ‘different’ against ‘differently’ in that sentence if need be.)

  6. 3. I agree with the others re adding Eric to the list of impressive folks over 70…

  7. and finally (from me), a quote from Barzun that could have been from today’s Koch (from the end of the Wikipedia write-up): In 2007, Barzun commented that “Old age is like learning a new profession. And not one of your own choosing.”

    • Excllent quote.

      As to the use of the conditional in the last sentence, I decided that since Shaw was a music critic I had to get the tone right, even at the expense of correct grammar.

  8. When Tom Lehrer was 45 (in 1965) he said: “It is depressing to think that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for 10 years.”

    When Eric Koch was my age he had already been away from the CBC for 4 years.

  9. I am older than Eric. I may even still have all my marbles. The Los Angeles Times has an article on the same subject, talking about Japan and Europe. In the US we have young immigrants. But no real revelation. RK

  10. I still have GBS’s experience of 94 years to look forward to, so this is just conjecture – but I expect at 94 I will be enlivened by knowing she would like to, even if she doesn’t. Eric’s formulation is not only musical, it is grammatically correct and satyrically subtle.