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Book Review: ‘Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement Romance, Wrinkles and Regret.’

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Kicking and screaming.

That’s how you’ll go into your twilight years: the calendar might say one thing but you’re not going to pay it any mind. There’s still a lot of pep in your step so shouldn’t, as in the new book “Aging Thoughtfully” by Martha C. Nussbaum & Saul Levmore, how you spend your golden years be your decision?

Once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, the average life expectancy was around fifty years, while the median retirement age was seventy-four. Back then, retirement didn’t involve Social Security or other government programs; instead, people worked until they couldn’t. Today, there are “more choices, and this book is about these choices.”

First of all, why retire at all? Says Levmore, there are laws in the U.S. that say you don’t have to but he’s in favor of changing them – especially if businesses institute “defined benefit plans,” which are often seen in government jobs but rarely in the private sector. These changes would benefit employers, who could better maintain productivity; younger workers needing jobs, and older workers, if Social Security was tweaked a bit. It would also help with “the people normally labeled as the elderly poor,” since defined benefit plans would give them more month-to-month income.

But retirement: one can only golf so much — what next? Says Nussbaum, retirement allows for a “second career,” either one that pays or one of volunteerism. For those kinds of choices, she looks at Finland, where retirement is mandatory at a relatively young age. It works because the Finns have excellent health care, they have ample time for better retirement preparation, and because they are treated equally.

Statistically speaking, as we age, we rely less on plastic surgery and more on the idea that wrinkles are “glamorous” - a notion that can absolutely be pushed “too far.” We tend to live our lives “backwards,” which is okay; doing so offers time to deal with negative emotions and unfulfilled regrets. Here, we learn the reasons for those pearl-clutching May-December romances we see in the tabloids. And we get advice on giving while we can still say where our assets should go.

I struggled a lot with this book, and I’m ultimately disinclined to recommend it. Here’s why: though “Aging Thoughtfully” is a series of “conversati­ons” about getting older, its basis is really old — as in, ancient philosophy and Shakespeare.

While that doesn’t make it a bad book by any means, it does mean that its usefulness is limited. Readers looking for advice will have to look harder because that’s buried in Cicero and King Lear; those in search of solid research will find it scattered between philosopher John Rawls and Cato the Elder. Yes, there are conversations within these pages and they’re thought-provoking, maybe even comforting, but they’re not really very accessible for the average reader.

Should you decide to tackle this book, do so with awareness for what you’re in for here. “Aging Thoughtfully” isn’t bad but, for most people, it’s going to make you scream.

Updated 12:35 pm, January 24, 2018
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