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Policy and Populations Related to Aging and the Nature of Work

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As we read the literature, talked with numerous professionals, and drew upon a variety of personal experiences, several things became apparent or started to emerge. The literature was overwhelmingly clinical and, not surprisingly, so were and are the myriads of public programs to which it gave rise. Stated most simply: Old people had a lot of serious personal, social, financial, housing, and medical problems, and society had an obligation to alleviate their plight. There was, of course, a secondary preventive thrust to these programs in that they aimed to avoid having existing problems worsen and create new problems. It is fair to say that a primary preventive approach was conspicuous by its absence, although on the level of rhetoric it was given lip service. A second factor, related to the first, was the enormous and morally upsetting discrepancy between defined needs and available resources, a characteristic endemic to the clinical endeavor. Frankly, as we became more involved with aged individuals and their families, with settings we euphemistically call convalescent or nursing homes, as well as with a medical profession whose knowledge of and attitudes toward the elderly quintessential illustrate the pernicious aspects of the self-fulfilling prophecy, we had inordinate difficulty maintaining our own stability. For the first year we found ourselves deeply focused on examination of policies and programs (retirement, age discrimination, housing, transportation, public education): their underlying assumptions, the cultural attitudes which powered them, implementation, and effectiveness.

Our disquietude had another source: our bias in favor of a preventive-developmental approach to human problems. We were aware that, despite our bias, we were being drawn more and more into a remedial framework which, given our project resources, seemed inefficient if not ludicrous. It should go without saying that anyone whose efforts are directed to clinical work-be it with the elderly, children, or any other group in need-does not have to justify his activities (their effectiveness is another issue). When you are in need and seek help, you are (or should be) grateful that clinicians exist. But when these needs are staggering in their frequency, and in varying ways and degrees reflect characteristics of our society, the limitations of an exclusively clinical approach are obvious (Sarason, 1974). This is especially true when the nature of and the rationale for the clinical approach hardly reflects a sensitivity to the larger social context.

It was both our bias and disquietude that opened our eyes and ears to "messages" to which we had been responding in terms as far removed from aging as one could imagine. Embedded as we were in a university, interacting constantly with students of widely differing backgrounds and interests, trying hard to comprehend their articulated dissatisfactions with society's past, present, and future, puzzled by their bleak projections of themselves over their life span, fascinated by the different lifestyles they were trying-at some point we attached several significances to these observations that gave expression to our bias and allowed us to think differently about aging.



A sizable fraction of students feared being trapped in life. This was phrased and fantasized in different ways by students, but there was the common theme that their post-college future would be a downhill experience. This did not mean (for most, at least) that they did not wish it would be otherwise or that they would not strive to make it otherwise, but rather that they feared the probabilities were high that they would become mired in an "establishment" existence tantamount to a slow death. They spoke about the future with a depressive and oppressive anxiety similar to that which one hears in the elderly. What we are trying to say is captured in the title of a book written by an undergraduate, Growing Up Old in the Sixties (Maynard, 1973). When we would ask students to write about "How young or old do you feel?" a surprising number said that they did not feel young but, rather (surprising to them), old. When we would interrogate them, sometimes in long no-holds-barred discussion, about how they would account for such a feeling-why they viewed the future so bleakly-they were not very articulate until they forced us (the interrogators) to face the fact that we grew up in very different times; that is, we grew up when it was possible to believe that society could be significantly reformed, whereas they were growing up when such a possibility was virtually nonexistent.

In light of the above, it was not surprising that so many students thought about and planned for a career with reluctance, anxiety, and even anger. As one student put it: "Why blame us for trying to postpone dying?" Or as another student put it: "Why should it be puzzling to you that we have serious doubts about striving for something that may kill us?" We make no claims about the generality of these feelings and attitudes except to say that we obtained them from undergraduate and graduate students in different universities. Obviously, there are many students who do not share these feelings and attitudes. Although it is important, it is not crucial for our purposes here to estimate the percentage of students who do have these reactions. Of the countless colleagues, at Yale and elsewhere, with whom we have discussed these matters, not one doubted that these attitudes were frequent. And, let us not overlook another obvious fact: the number of students who have dropped out of school and society not available to us for questioning.

When we put our experiences with college students together with our knowledge of public policy and programming for the elderly, we were struck by something we consider of enormous significance. Theory and practice in regard to the elderly are almost totally determined by the perceived characteristics of those who are now elderly. In three or more decades we will have the most formally educated aged population any society has ever had. There is good reason to believe that becoming aged will pose for them and society problems radically different and potentially more personally and socially disruptive than is the case with today's elderly population. Once the "obvious" dawned on us it reinforced our determination to pursue a developmental course of investigation. It also gave substantive direction to the kinds of studies we had to undertake. These studies are in their initial phases. Their thrust is best communicated by the considerations underlying them.

A way in which our exploratory studies support what we and others have intuited is that the number of people who seek a career change is not small. Based on an analysis of graduate school applicants, and depending on how one defines career change, we found between 10 and 20 per cent who were 25 years or older and sought a change. We have also become aware (by reading the advertising section for professional personnel in the New York Times) that within the past few years agencies have come into existence with the exclusive purpose of counseling professional individuals seeking a career change. We interviewed the director of one agency who told us that he could not keep up with requests for service, and his fee was not small. He was also in the process of setting up satellite offices in several other big cities. What the figures would be nationally or by the different professions we cannot say. We have been discussing individuals who are actively seeking a career change. We have no good basis for hazarding a guess as to how many people would like to change careers but take no active step to do so. In any event, we can no longer afford to reinforce the view that work dissatisfaction is peculiar to blue or white collar workers. Terkel's (1974) book Working deservedly received a good deal of acclaim, but we fear that one of its unintended consequences will be to reinforce the belief that work is a major problem only for certain segments of the population.

Our discussions with diverse professionals have brought out a consideration deserving of special comment. It is what might be called the "How many times do you climb Mt. Everest?" phenomenon. Most simply put, it is the experience that one has successfully mastered one's "trade" but that is not sufficient reason to continue doing the same thing, albeit successfully, for the rest of one's life. It is not that the work is not intrinsically interesting but that it has lost some if not most of its novelty or challenging features. They enjoy the status and financial rewards that success has brought them but there is the nagging thought that there are other things they would like to try to be; and if, as they thought quite likely, they would not make a change (because in each instance of great loss in income) they may find their remaining years somewhat disappointing or empty. As has been pointed out elsewhere (Sarason, 1972), in the context of the nature of leadership, the consequences of success because one has mastered the job can have untoward consequences. There is a pre-potent tendency to view job dissatisfaction as in part reflecting intrinsically negative features of the work qua work. But as a surgeon said to us: "Surgery is interesting. For a period of years it did fascinate me. I am a good surgeon. In fact, I'm a damned good one. So I'm good, so what? What I really want to do is to get into the history of medicine." This individual was in his middle years, but he, like others with whom we have talked, was voicing something similar to what younger interviewees were saying; that is, they did not want to feel that they were going to do one thing in life, to be walled in by narrow specialization.
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