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Interview: Paul McCartney, Will You Write Us a New Song?


Dr. Harry R. Moody

An American philosopher and leading gerontologist wants Paul McCartney to write a sequel to the famous Beatles song When I’m Sixty-Four.

In a recent issue of the Human Values in Aging Newsletter, editor Dr. Harry R. Moody reminisced about the Beatles gentle music hall number. Moody is director of academic affairs at the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). His musings were triggered by thoughts of his upcoming 64th birthday.

Gerontology was the furthest thing from Moody’s mind in 1967, when he was 22 and ex-Beatle McCartney first sang: "Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? When I’m 64." Forty years later, attitudes towards aging are more positive, and "Sir Paul," will soon be 67.

Moody is the author of numerous articles, as well as a number of books, including The Five Stages of the Soul: Charting the Spiritual Passages That Shape Our Lives (Anchor Books).

AHB reached him in Washington, D.C.

Ruth Dempsey: Why do you want Paul McCartney to write a new song?

Harry Moody: Young people often see age as only loss and decline, which is only part of the story. When I’m Sixty-Four is a great song, but it evokes a fear of abandonment, not the triumph of self-discovery. The real story is bitter-sweet, and maybe only music can express that truth.

RD: What did you want to be at 22? And what finally led you to gerontology?

HM: I never wanted to do anything but be a professor of philosophy, and I have taught philosophy, especially bioethics, from time to time. But I got involved in teaching the humanities to retired people when I was in graduate school, at age 26. I thought older people would be the best students of philosophy, and I wasn’t wrong about that. One thing led to another, and I ended up co-founding an academic gerontology center in the mid-70s, at a time when the field was just getting going. I’ve never regretted it. On the contrary, I’m profoundly grateful for the work I’ve been given to do.

RD: You don’t buy the slogan "60 is the new 40?"

HM: The real slogan might be "60 is the new 60" because we need to rethink what age is all about. Insisting that you’re 20 years younger than you are is a way of looking backward, not living in the present or looking forward. It’s ultimately a form of denial.

RD: You have written of the Lifelong Learning Act of 2012, and the loss of intellectual capital as aging workers leave the labour force…

HM: By fate or coincidence, I happened to be present when then-Senator Walter Mondale announced his Lifelong Learning Act in 1975. But that legislation was never funded or implemented. We need something like this now more than ever in order to build on the intellectual capital represented by an aging workforce.

In historical perspective, we simply cannot afford to waste this intellectual capital. As my friend Marc Freedman likes to say, older people are our only indefinitely renewable natural resource, so we have to manage that resource and make good use of an aging population. Some countries, like Japan, are showing the way, perhaps because they have the oldest population on earth. A truly forward-looking approach to lifelong learning would see this enterprise not as a luxury, but a way of "recycling the life-cycle," by teaching "old dogs new tricks" and helping the young dogs understand things that older ones already learned.

RD: Boomers may not be reaching middle age in as good health as their predecessors. You call for more personal responsibility along with collective public responsibility . . .

HM: There is no way to improve health conditions without addressing rampant chronic illness, and aging boomers are a particularly vulnerable group. Chronic illnesses typically reflect issues of diet and exercise, and both areas require a combination of personal responsibility and collective policy. It is a mistake to think of these as mutually exclusive. Both are required for any kind of progress in this area.

RD: With 10,000 boomers turning 60 every day, you say their accomplishments lie in the future. How so?

HM: My former boss, Dr. Robert Butler, used to conjecture about what would happen "when the boomers reach Golden Pond." We now have the answer: the pond is polluted and fresh water is running out.

It turns out that boomers will reach old age in the period from 2010 to 2030, just the time when the human species will have to make enormous changes in response to global warming, species extinction and other environmental threats. This future, a combination of population aging and environment challenge, is utterly predictable. What is unpredictable is how boomers will respond to the challenge. The historian Arnold Toynbee described the rise and fall of civilizations in exactly this way: challenge and response. The arc of the future is clear, but our collective response remains to be seen.

RD: Finally, what does a good old age mean to you?

HM: The most conventional response is to point to good health, enough money to live on and a strong social network. We have some control, but not complete control over these. I’m thinking of health promotion, savings and productive work and strengthening of the social networks that our lives depend on. But all three eventually erode: we get sick and die; we face economic threats like the current downturn; and we lose the people we love.

A good old age requires something more than what can be taken away so easily. Some find that "something more" in a sense of purpose: for example, generosity toward others, or "outliving the self," as John Kotre put it. George Vaillant says a good old age boils down to forgiveness and gratitude. Ultimately, it means seeing our individual lives in spiritual terms, which may be beyond any words I could offer. I will say this: since we did not create ourselves, we need to discover a deeper kind of gratitude, which the poet Rilke spoke of when he said, "To have been here once, if only for this once, can never be cancelled." Beyond that, there’s nothing more I can say, maybe because I’m only 64.