The Wisdom Boom

Friday, February 12, 2016 - 4:06pm
The New Better Off

The Wisdom Boom

Every eight seconds, another baby boomer turns 65. When you read that statistic, do you think “silver tsunami” — an ominous metaphor if there ever was one — or do you think “wisdom boom” — a decidedly more optimistic take on the changing demographics of this country?

Encore, a national organization that’s inspiring people “in later life” to impact society for the better, hopes it’s the latter. I attended their annual conference this week and was blown away by the movement to reshape, reimagine, and rebrand “old age.”

It’s people like Samuel Lupin, 77, who has reclaimed the tradition of house calls, bringing much-needed health care to 4,000 homebound elderly patients and cutting hospital visits in half. Or former Black Panther Jamal Joseph, 62, who founded IMPACT, a nonprofit that has helped 4,000 young people find refuge from violence, learn leadership skills, and create art for social change. Or teacher-turned-Episcopal-priest Belle Mickelson, 67, who helps people of all ages harmoniously fiddle together, building connections in 29 remote Alaskan villages. All of these folks, by the way, won Purpose Prizes, one of Encore’s annual initiatives to reward and make visible the incredible work being done by older people. (How refreshing after the glut of lists celebrating people under 30, right?!)

Let’s be real: aging is a complicated phenomenon, as my fellow columnist, Jane Gross, writes so articulately about week in, week out. On the one hand, Americans are living longer and many are sustaining a high quality of life well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s — especially with the right kind of support, a huge topic in and of itself. As the Encore network shows, people are having a huge impact in their “third act” of life.

On the other hand, aging sometimes, pardon my French, sucks. Having frank conversations with my own parents, 67 and 68, about the frustration of chronic health problems and the grief over dear friends taken too soon, has made me aware of the very real and unavoidable suffering that is a part of aging. I sincerely hope that all of the talk about longevity and vitality doesn’t make people feel “weak” when being honest about the very real losses associated with aging.

At 36, in the throes of what I recently heard someone dub the “messy middle,” I look at my parents and my mentors — like an old geezer you all may have heard of, Parker J. Palmer — and I am most struck by the deep need I feel to understand their hard-earned wisdom. I can barely get my teeth brushed I’m moving so fast and juggling so much. Most days are like drinking from a fire hydrant. My husband John and I finally get Maya in bed and then collapse on the couch, exchanging exhausted smiles.

In other words, I know that I’m building stamina — emotional, physical, spiritual — but I’m not always sure I’m absorbing wisdom. Absorption feels like it takes time. I don’t have a lot of that. My life is measured by lunches packed, emails replied to, bills paid — all these incremental and too often mundane metrics of a life. All moving so damn fast. This column, truth be told, is one of the only consistent places I have to slow down and keep track of the larger meaning to be found underneath the daily hum. I’m so grateful for that.

At this frenetic pace, I need the communications that slow me down. I need my dad’s sweet inquiries: “How are you feeling, Court?” I need my mom’s gifts of perspective: “We had no idea what we were doing either, and you turned out beautifully.” I need On Being reader Jane Wedekind, whom I’ve never met but still takes the time, week after week, to tell me that what I’ve written matters: “Such a wise post!”

And I need the unspoken lessons, too. Louise, my 77-year-old neighbor, organizes a Buddhist sangha designed to further racial reconciliation in her living room, a half dozen people who create a tiny patch of peace every Monday night. Ah, that matters. Parker has an away message on his email that lovingly reinforces his need to protect his limited energy for the things that matter most. Ah, that’s how to say no with grace. Pat Mitchell, one of my dear mentors and collaborators, is 73, but seeks out and revels in friendships with people of every single age. Ah, I want to live like that, always.

In Composing a Further Life, Mary Catherine Bateson writes:

“As people grow older, some of the ways they have contributed in the past may no longer be possible, but the challenge to society is not only to provide help and care where these are needed but also to offer the opportunity to contribute and care for others.”

It’s obvious that the aging need the young: bodies break down; people become vulnerable, the full, fragile circle. But though it might not be as immediately obvious, we — the “young and hungry,” the “messy middle,” the just “over the hill” — need you. Make no mistake. I fear we sometimes don’t say that plainly, or even know how to ask for what we need, but it’s true. Intergenerational relationships are, perhaps, the most powerful and most untapped resource on the planet.

Jamal Joseph stands with some of his students from IMPACT Repertory Theatre, a performing arts company for teenagers in Harlem that offers creative arts education in disciplines such as dance, music, writing and theatre, as well as leadership training in such fields as conflict resolution, human rights activism, drug prevention and community organizing. More than 1,500 students have taken part in IMPACT’s programs.

(Talking Eyes Media / Encore.orgAll rights reserved.)

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



This is so lovely Courtney, and so true.
I have always had relationships with people of all ages...I was in theatre all through my 20's and made some dear friends who I have played poker with for this point the eldest is 86, the youngest 59. I take and teach yoga, and have friends of all ages through that. I belong to a recovery community, and age differences are...just not an issue? I belong to a meditation sangha of all ages.
We need each other. I need my younger friends to help push me to keep growing and my older friends to show me how gracefully aging can be experienced. I need my younger friends to allow me to cuddle their kids and my older friends to allow me reasons to be of service.
We are all connected, in every age. We all have worth and purpose. We all love and can make a difference at any point in our lives.
Aging is complicated, it walks hand and hand with loss (on so many levels), grief, pain....but there is great truth to the idea of the ways we grow in wisdom, the lenses we view our experiences through, the acceptance and the willingness and great need to be still relevant, which seems to so perfectly fit into the idea of being of service, at least for me.
I am 62 ....some how "upper middle age" I guess. I have a dead husband and a wonderful 23 year old son, and am grateful every day for the myriad younger friends I have and can rely on. And my 80 year old friends who have had MY back since I was in my 20's.
We may grow older, thank god we are always growing up and, in many cases OUT.

What a beautiful summary. Sounds like you have a life worth emulating for all of us.

I've just turned 50, and this post really resonates. Thanks for writing it.

This is absolutely WONDERFUL.

Younger children can participate as well. Just imagine the wisdom gained across multiple generations.

Check out this super-multi-generational connection:

Hope springs eternal.

Thank you for this fabulous column.

Yes!! You had me at "most days are like drinking from a fire hydrant." Amen to that. I'm a tail-end baby boomer, born in 1964, married and working at LU in Admissions, drinking daily from the fire hydrant of life. My husband and I raised two boys, one living in NYC earning more than I ever will, and the other still in college. A history major myself, I have always loved the generations ahead of me. When given the opportunity, I will seek these folks out in a heartbeat, much to my peers disapproving glares. They have so much to teach usif we will only listen...loved your thoughts here on the wisdom boom. Made my heart sing.

All the best,

Dear Courtney, Your writing always inspires me. As a 68 year old boomer, I have also started groups of elders in my living room. One, a general older women's group (though based in Buddhism). In a second group we listen to Tara Brach guide us in beautiful meditations, listen to her dharma talk, then do a free write which we share based on the talk. I'm just starting a new group based on OnBeing's "civil conversations". I piloted the group on New Year's Eve, and we're having our first "real" meeting next week. My only issue is that it's easy to find older women to participate (gotta love us!), but so hard to find men, and also diversity in other ways, ethnicity, religion, race, old/young, straight/gay. I long for this diversity in my life, but mostly end up with friends and group members very similar to myself. Anyway, I deeply appreciate your appreciation of us elders. I know for many of us it's an on-going challenge how to feel productive and how to live life in a meaningful, contributory way.

Sounds like you're doing the hard "work" of making sure you create community where this kind of diversity can teach us all. Keep it up! Grateful for your thanks.

I'm about enter the "and over" part of 55 and over. I'm looking forward to it in some ways. Although I have enjoyed the productive years in the middle, they are years where you are expected to be productive, there are very few programs designed to encourage and support middle aged people with jobs. You are supposed to be the ones who are spending their free time encouraging youth AND supporting the elderly. You're doing just fine at those BTW Courtney. Thanks for the link.

Dear Young Whippersnapper: I love being, and am honored to be, one of your Old Geezer mentors! As I've said before, intergenerational mentoring is a wonderfully two-way street! Thanks for another great column, Courtney. Love, Parker

I love that you two have this relationship. And I love your playfully affectionate usage of Young Whippersnapper (haven't heard that one in a long time!) and Old Geezer! Also the wisdom you both embody and share with such generosity and grace. It's a real gift to read each of you AND to watch the particularity of your different-generational writerly friendship grow. Somehow, I see a book on wisdom and friendship growing out of this...I think it will be a beauty. Much gratitude.

Amen to all this, from a messy middle/still climbing the hill 53 year old missing her wise,funny parents.

As I consider my 94 year old mother's health I feel the weight of the impending loss of her wisdom and love! She has always been there for my five siblings and I....she always will!

Great insight! It's heartening to see opportunities to share wisdom and resources across multiple generations. Thanks for spreading the word .. Well done!