Radical Aging

"Welcome to the 40s," a friend said to me on my birthday two years ago, "the old age of youth and the youth of old age." From where I stand, I can see the peaks of 50, 60, and 70 ahead.

This society has many assumptions and expectations about how people should behave in their middle

and older years. In terms of social and political convictions and activism, it is assumed that we will mellow—we can have opinions but not passions. It is assumed that we will abandon idealism, take fewer risks, grow more materialistic, and slowly drift from the margins to the center, until one day we find ourselves smack in the middle of the road.

I know the pressures in the middle years are real, and I do not want to minimize them. Some of us have children—we worry about them and need to provide for them, we plan for our older years, we seek greater material comforts for our weary bodies. But I want to make a strong case for radical aging, or aging as radicals, because it will change our society, enrich our community, amaze our children, and do our own souls some good.

I want to be clear: My message is not to abandon all comforts, live in a hovel, be virtuous and miserable. Social movements do not need deprived, bitter, self-righteous, pseudo-martyrs. But social movements do need people who keep their edge, their sense of moral outrage, and their willingness to do brave, unpopular things as they grow grayer and thinner on top.

We need to age with our visions, ideals, and dreams intact. They may change over the years, but that does not mean they have to be muted or compromised. And we need to hold on to our anger—it can help keep us sharp, motivated, and non-complacent.

I remember that following her 50th birthday, Gloria Steinem was asked by a reporter if she thought that she would mellow in the years ahead. "Oh, no," Gloria answered immediately, "feminists get more radical as we age."

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Sojourners Magazine July 1994
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