In our second lives

Ya’acov Ben Shaul thinks that with ever-increasing lifespans mean we will need to rethink the entire concept of growing old.

July 31, 2011 04:15
computer mouse (illustrative)

computer 311. (photo credit: (Rick Nease/Detroit Free Press/MCT))

Anyone who raises a glass and exclaims “Until 120!” to an elderly person on his or her birthday expresses a wish for a long life, but has no real expectation that the celebrant will reach the age at which Moses made his departure.

Today, the average Israeli lives around 77 to 80 years, meaning this country has one of the longest life expectancies in the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, Westerners were grateful to reach 50.

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While most are unlikely to emulate Moses in longevity, they will live longer than ever in coming decades – and thus face the need to change everything, from their lifestyle and expectations to careers and partners.

At least this is the prediction of 54-year-old gerontology expert, investment company owner and strategic adviser Ya’acov Ben Shaul, author of a Hebrew book – recently translated into English – called Mega Haim: Yesh Zman. Lekulanu. Maspik Zman (Mega Life). There is Time. For All of us. Enough Time or The Second Life Cycle – The New Education for Life Cycles and Careers. He is not a physician or scientist, but earned a doctorate in gerontology from the University of Haifa.

Ben Shaul seemed to have been inspired by his father, Eliahu, who worked in the Israel Lands Authority and was active until the day he died at 93. He liked to visit his doctor in the central Carmel, who used to prescribe aspirin and other medications “against the Evil Eye,” she always said with a laugh. He always cooked, cleaned, read without eyeglasses and went for walks and to the market, Ben Shaul recalls.

But at the age of 59, the father was offered early retirement and took it. From then, in a sad and gradual process, his life became empty of content....

No one thought he would live twice as long as his own father had. So when he went on pension, he just waited, almost without initiative, for the end. Yet this waiting, to his great surprise, continued in relatively good health for over 30 years.

About two months before his 93rd birthday, Eliahu told Ya’acov that he planned to live only until the beginning of November 2009. “I’ve had enough,” he told his son while taking a walk. And in October of that year, he swallowed some pills and died “while he was healthy, without a mental decline, without any physical limitations.”

When visiting his grave, Ya’acov was asked to join a quorum to recite Kaddish for another man. From the stranger’s gravestone, he learned that the man had lived to 99. “See, Abba?” Ya’acov whispered toward Eliahu. “What was so urgent that you had to go....?”

The Haifa-born author maintains in his book that we are all facing “a new world, in which lives will be dozens of years longer than we have known... a world where by the year 2050, half the population of the West will be 50 or older, the average age will jump from 29 to 51 – and for every taxpayer, there will be someone who doesn’t work. Career? Forget about having a single profession for over 30 years; begin preparing your children for multiple occupations. Marriages lasting 80 years? This book anticipates conjugal contracts with preset exit stations, and a world where the gender gap will increase, opening a whole new range of social issues affecting women.”

It will be called “Mega Life,” he says. “With these drastically changing statistics, the world as we know it will change before our very eyes.”

In six chapters over 161 pages, Ben Shaul predicts that the largest age group will be made up of 50 to 100 year olds who will have all started their “Second Life Cycle.” This group will also comprise the most significant social sector in terms of consumerism.

These individuals will stop visiting family doctors for checkups and switch instead to the care of ‘preventive’ and ‘maintenance’ physicians.

The author insists that psychological theories about aging are outdated, and that depression will become the leading cause of death. People living in their second life cycle will no longer be categorized by chronological age but rather by their perception of time, and this will be decisive in choosing and meeting one’s life goals.

Perhaps inspired by Moses, Ben Shaul presents his “Ten Commandments for Mega Life.” Individuals who prepare themselves for the eventuality are more likely to achieve a long life, he says. While he doesn’t believe people will achieve “eternal life” thanks to medical miracles such as organ replacement, he does think that new thinking and habits “will give us longer and higher-quality life than what we were used to.”

The first “commandment” is to slow down, as time will not be a scarce commodity. The second is to have medical checkups and observe a healthful lifestyle to stave off bodily breakdown and postpone chronic disorders. The third is to adopt a low-calorie, balanced diet that includes walnuts, red wine, pomegranates and mineral-rich vegetables, and excludes processed foods with a lot of sugar or fat.

Futurists predict that there will be nano-robots traveling through the bloodstream removing harmful substances and repairing organs.

The fourth “commandment” is physical activity, which even in octogenarians can help ensure mental stability and provide life with meaning. The fifth is mental health, as objective and subjective loneliness/depression can definitely shorten one’s existence. “To survive, a person must not only diagnose his health on a regular basis, but also his emotional and mental condition,” he writes.

The sixth is a social life. “People are not meant to be alone,” writes Ben Shaul. “The minimum is not to be lonely, even if the friend is a pet. To the disappointment of many, studies show that there is almost no connection between the number of children one has and longevity. The lives of couples who did not want children are not influenced in terms of longevity compared to that of parents.”

Setting short- and long-term goals to create a feeling of satisfaction and even self-fulfillment is the seventh.

Targets and fields of interest should be determined and a daily routine is necessary, but long-term goals are no less important, he postulates.

Sleep – for no fewer than seven hours but not more than nine hours a night – is critical for good health, he continues, relying on experts.

Then there is money, for the ninth commandment.

How much do you have to spend to preserve yourself, as life expectancy is rapidly changing? The longer one lives, the more money one will need, he writes.

Finally, awareness of survival is needed to continue two decades or even more beyond standard life expectancy. People will have to take responsibility for their health and plans. “We must all be alert, updated and open to absorbing information. We must be able to react quickly to every change occurring outside and especially inside our bodies,” he concludes, laying down the “laws.”

While not everyone can be a Shimon Peres, Ben Shaul writes that the president of Israel can serve as a role model. Born in 1923, Peres is still going strong six years after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize. Predictions for the year 2050 are that over three million people will live beyond a century, and most of them will be active.

The recent public and Knesset debate to cancel the retirement “advantage” of women and extend their working life to 67 – which aroused much opposition among both sexes – would certainly have amused Ben Shaul, who writes that women are stronger than men and live longer, thus there is no need to put them on pension earlier. The “artificial” pension age set by Germany’s 19th-century chancellor and statesman Otto von Bismarck is, in the gerontologist’s eyes, absolutely outdated in an era of mega life.

“Today, we are still following Bismarck’s orders.”

When, exactly, is one to have a “midlife crisis,” which in recent decades has hit around 40? At 40 or 50, people tend to stop thinking about the time that they have enjoyed and start thinking about how much time they have left. But in an era of unaccustomed longevity, older people will do better if they look forward to their “second life” – plan for it, make suitable changes and have a positive emotional and mental outlook, Ben Shaul writes.

People who spent 30 years in a career that seemed suitable to them in their 20s are likely to find their interests very different in their 50s. Time will change their perspective.

Studies of 65-year-olds have shown that the majority do not see themselves as “old,” and more than two-thirds regard their health as “good” to “excellent.” Baby Boomers who were raised to think that they were born to fulfill themselves and have survived in huge numbers (at least in the US) have an ever-greater tendency to regard themselves as being younger than they are chronologically.

Ben Shaul defines “elderly” as a person whose current age is eight years less than the average life expectancy in the place and socioeconomic group to which he belongs. Thus, a man in sub-Saharan Africa aged 40 can be considered “old” while a contemporary living in the center of the US can be regarded as young. In the new era, one will become old – at least in the West – decades later.

Society will want older people to retire much later, as there will be fewer younger people to support the rest of the population. And since they will be healthier, most will want to pursue a career, although probably a new one. A person who spent all his working life as an accountant may feel dried up, and yearn for something very different, such as film making.

The author quotes Jack Welch, the longtime CEO of General Electric, who spent most of his working life in the one company (although he has fired more than 100,000 employees over his career). In the new era, vocational counselors will have to change their thinking and suggest new – and probably very different – professions to people for their second life cycle.

Companies catering to the consumer market will actively court older customers who will have more disposable income and wider interests. Those who want to retire will need to find ways to enjoy newfound time for culture, travel and other leisure activity.

Although women have had longer lives than men – and this is expected to continue – the average woman will be at a disadvantage, says Ben Shaul. Men can father children at any age, while women – despite new developments in fertility – will not be able to give birth endlessly. Older men will probably want to live with women who are much younger than they. In addition, having taken time off to raise their families, women will have less experience and tenure in professions.

However, women are usually more social and maintain better ties to society than men. Yet they will be at a disadvantage if they want long, long marriages. Men will not necessarily wait to celebrate golden anniversaries with the women they married when young.

Thus for good or ill, in the new era, Ben Shaul suggests that instead of divorce, it will become common for couples to agree to allow for “exit stations” from relationships every 20 years or so.

Weddings, he declares – fully cognizant of the fact that the religious establishment will fight him – will become “passé.” But even the observant, he suggests, will observe societal changes and make arrangements to acclimate to them.

The new age of mega life, as envisioned by Ben Shaul, is rather frightening, but also exciting.

It certainly won’t be dull.

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