I am pondering one of life’s decennial landmarks. No big deal, of course. If you are around my age, turning 30 — just a few short years after we all agreed that we should never trust anyone over 30 — was a harmless joke. Turning 40, and 50, and 60 was a call to arms. Welcome to the Big Four (Five) (Six) – Oh.
As I wrote in this space 30 years ago, on the eve of turning 40, that was a milestone to be welcomed. Being 40 “means that you have been around the block a few times
. . . Being 40 means that you have a few opinions, a few likes and dislikes, and that you’re not afraid to express them. Being 40 and having a newspaper column means that you can even inflict them on others and not worry too much about whether anyone else cares or doesn’t care about what you like or dislike.”
Still no big deal 20 years ago and even 10 years ago. After all, by the time we had hit 60, everyone agreed that 60 was the new 40.
So now — as of Tuesday, May 16 — it’s the big Seven-Oh, or maybe it’s Oh? Seven-Oh?
It’s still no big deal. Life goes on at 70 as it did at 40 and 50 and 60. At age 70 there are still family and friends to have fun with, commiserate with, and — on a few more occasions than before — care for and look after. At age 70 our business life, provided we have not already been down-sized or retired, chugs along as always. As you beaver away at your work post in the information age, no one knows you’re a dog, or a gray-haired, wobbly-kneed, stent-laden septuagenarian. A deadline at 70 is not that much different from one faced at age 30. A bad deal at 40 probably has the same possible consequences at 70. Yes, I am still working. I’m pounding a keyboard, not a pile of rocks.
My slightly older friend Ed Tenner, the historian of technology, recalls the liberal Protestant theologian, the Rev. Eric Butterworth, who urged people to stay optimistic in their advanced years. “My age is none of my business,’’ Butterworth would say. He died in 2003 at the age of 86.
So the big day is not such a big day, after all. Turning 16 meant you got your hands on the wheel of the old man’s car. At 21 you could drink in most every state. Turning 70 offers no such watershed transformations.
But apart from life’s odometer turning over to a new round number, there are some other, related milestones that may be even more important than any decennial markers. Among them:
The death of the last parent. My mother died too young, at age 76, in 1997. But my father kept chugging along, overcoming quadruple bypass surgery, taking up with a “younger woman,” and re-fueling his love of cars. He was in his 80s when he acquired a Mazda Miata convertible, which he soon viewed as sluggish. He traded it for a Chrysler Crossfire — 215 horsepower, 155 miles per hour top speed, in case anyone is interested.
My father was my personal fountain of youth. At some point along this ride I did the arithmetic and realized my father was going on 29 when I was born. So as he marched along, I marched along happily in step, barely considering my own mortality and content to believe there might be another 29 or more years left whenever my father died. That day came in March, 2011. The 29 years is now down to less than 23. And counting. The younger woman, by the way, is now in her 90s and still going strong. Go Kay!
Going on Medicare. For me, as I gamboled through my 40s and 50s, the term Medicare always prompted visions of nursing homes inhabited by very old people. By the time I was eligible for it, I knew better. I also knew — after years of jumping from one insurance company to another to maintain some sort of reasonable health insurance coverage for me and my employees — that Medicare and its supplemental plans were a godsend.
Still, signing up for it at age 65 evoked a feeling even more intense than when I got my first letter from AARP.
Mandatory Social Security/retirement withdrawals. The issue rears its head when you turn 62 and you begin to get statements of your account, detailing how much money you would get per month if you began taking payments immediately, and how much you would get if you postpone the benefit. The maximum payout comes at age 70 — at that point there is no incentive not to take it.
Other than Viagra vs. Cialis, this present value/future payoff dilemma may be one of the great talking points among old geezers hanging out at Denny’s coffee counters across America. If you wait until 70 you can get delayed retirement benefits that will get a bigger monthly paycheck. But you will have to live to be older than Methuselah to make it worthwhile. At age 60-something I made my decision: I would wait until age 70 and then take the largest possible monthly payout.
A week or two after I completed the online application I got a phone call from a helpful Social Security representative, who verified all my choices, informed me of my monthly payout amount and how it was determined, and then told me about one other option. The system allows you do retroactively file for benefits up to six months. Because I had begun the process in December, I could turn back the clock to June and claim all the money I would have received since then in one lump sum. And that lump sum would be (are you ready?) $28,000, which would arrive in my mailbox in about a month.
I was tempted. But I also figured if they went to this length to get you to take it, there must be something in it for them. I assumed it would be all taxable in the year I got it — now, when I am also still gainfully employed. I would also receive monthly payments of about $180 less than the full payout. I asked the representative if I could think it over. Of course, she said, take a few days. I took a few hours, did the arithmetic, and figured if I lived to 83, I would come out ahead. I also figured that $180 a month was not going to change my lifestyle much — before or after age 83.
Of course what difference does any of this make? I’m not retired and have no plans to retire. Turning 70 is no big deal. But the other milestones have been noticed, and the imminent arrival of the first Social Security check makes me wonder if I could afford to retire if I wanted to — or if I had to.
I do some other figuring: If I am lucky enough to follow in my father’s footsteps, I might last another 20 years or so. Taking the most simplistic approach, I calculate an annual income based on 1/20th of my savings, 1/20 of my retirement IRA, plus Social Security. (Drawing 5 percent a year from your retirement is actually a little reckless. The experts recommend that you count on only 4 percent per year.) The arithmetic works out that the three sources of retirement income are all roughly the same. Social Security, or Social Insecurity as my parents always referred to it, accounts for only one-third of my projected Golden Years budget.
I ticked off the cost-of-living expenses. Those quickly offset most of that projected annual income. But given a moderate amount of luck and a frugal lifestyle, I can continue to live in my house in Princeton rather than trading it in for a slot in a trailer park.
I’m a lucky guy to be able to make that statement. Make no mistake, anyone’s lifestyle at any age begins with things no amount of money can buy: health, family (including two kids and a significant other, in my case), and friends. At the age of 70 I have begun to appreciate friends in a different way. It used to be that I marveled at what they did. Now I marvel at what they are doing and what they plan to do. As you grow older you don’t need to start cultivating younger friends, but you might want to make sure your friends have some fresh ideas and new projects in mind.
For all the friends and family, however, that “senior lifestyle” will also depend on economic survival. And all too many of my baby boomer peers do not have enough savings socked away to keep up with their life expectancy. At least they will have Social Insecurity.
The fact is that turning 70 makes you re-think the risks that you have flirted with for the past half century or so. Some things are not as big a deal as you would have imagined.
Paying off the mortgage, I had always thought, would be a champagne-popping, document-burning festival with friends and family. A few years ago, when my final mortgage payment was made, there was no party. Instead I took over payment of the quarterly property tax bill and I realized I was paying way more in taxes than I ever did in mortgages. The neighbors speak excitedly about some little house in the neighborhood, which had sold for under $500,000 back in the early 2000s, now on the market at over $1 million. I just wince: increased property value equals more property tax.
Other things that seemed inconsequential at the time have turned out to be critically important. More than 40 years ago I had returned to Princeton to work as a part-time assistant to the journalist teaching the expository writing course at the university. One year the “professor” was Larry L. King, the author of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and scathing political tracts in various national publications. On several occasions I accompanied King to various watering holes around town. Dressed in his blue jeans, denim jacket, and cowboy boots, sucking beers from long-necked bottles, King was the quintessential reckless writer. But he wasn’t. King argued that successful freelance writers were eminent entrepreneurs, mindful of every deal that might be made and, like most entrepreneurs, not risk takers but risk minimizers.
I failed to emulate King’s writing success, but I sensed the risk-averse approach to life immediately. I never used a loan to buy a car — my “new” cars usually started out with 50,000 miles on them. When I bought my first few houses I had housemates lined up to help with the monthly payments. I started U.S. 1 at a time when the freelance writers pool was so crowded that some 600-word stories in People magazine, my major source of income, would have four or five writers’ names attached.
And so it went. When the time came to shift U.S. 1 from a biweekly publication to a weekly, the decision itself was a product of sheer intuition and common sense: The biweekly publication had become so thick that bundles of 50 were becoming too heavy to handle — the kind of thing not taught in business school. The execution of the decision, however, was made with me creating a host of different scenarios designed to minimize the risk.
But with age perceptions change. A few months ago I was invited to lunch with Pete Carril, the former Princeton basketball coach whose wisdom has never been bounded by the perimeter of the basketball court. Someone asked the obligatory how are you doing question. Carril allowed that life was pretty fine. “I’m 86 years old,” he said. “At this point there’s not much I can do that’s going to make any big difference.”
A few months later I read a New York Times account of a 94-year-old inventor named John Goodenough, who led a team at the University of Texas at Austin that has patented a cheap, lightweight, and safe battery that could drastically change the economics of electric cars. Goodenough is no spring chicken in the battery business. At age 57, in 1980, he co-invented the transformative lithium-ion battery.
How does Goodenough maintain his inventive chops at age 94? For one thing, he told the Times writer, “I’m old enough to know you can’t close your mind to new ideas. You have to test out every possibility if you want something new.” The more possibilities the better, Goodenough suggested. “You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together.” As Ed Tenner says, it’s not about growing older, it’s living longer.
Old age has also brought with it an intellectual freedom that is rarely felt among younger people in an academic environment: As a 90-something, Goodenough said, “you no longer worry about keeping your job.”
Bottom line: It’s easier to be a risk taker after 70 than before. And a corollary: Be careful out there, kids, but not too careful. Minimize risk but don’t try to eliminate it completely. There’s risk in everything you do, including hiding in your shell and doing the same old, same old, day in and day out.
As the newest decade dawns for me, I consider whether I have learned anything of any value in the last decade. I can think of two insights:
1.) A new appreciation of time. Years ago I realized that time is money. It was another motivator in moving from freelance writer, where your income was limited by the number of hours in a day and the volume of material produced in that time, to newspaper publisher, where an organization could be built that would literally make money while you slept.
More recently I realized that idea had to be refined: Time may be money, but they don’t make it anymore. It’s the true gold standard, with a few quirky characteristics. Wealthy guys may have no more, or much less, than you do. The less you have of it, the more valuable it becomes, but there’s no way to cash in on it. And you never really know how much you have left in your reserve until it’s too late.
Now I have one more thought about time. Time is a great equalizer later in life, but it can be cruelly unequal in our younger days. I recently stumbled across a blog post by the executive director of Seattle-based nonprofit. The writer, Vu Le, made the same point I made about the finite measure of time and then brought up something I had never considered: Time inequity.
“In general, people from marginalized communities — people of color, people with disabilities, transgender individuals, low-income families — have less time on average. Many have to work, even from a young age, to support their families. Some give up their dreams because they have no time to pursue it, due to a parent or sibling who is ill, for example. And in this political climate, so much time is used by many communities simply for survival.”
When I was editor and publisher of U.S. 1, I never forgot my days as a freelance writer, and the hassle of having to hound publications for payments. I decided I would never ask a freelancer to submit an invoice. Instead I would keep track of their work and mail out monthly payments as close to a predictable schedule as I could manage. Thinking about Vu Le’s remarks above, I realize that may have been one of my greater accomplishments — maybe someone will mention it if I ever get a retirement dinner.
2. A new appreciation for the golden hours (not years). I don’t know anyone who refers to the “golden years” without a little irony in their voice. Sooner or later the golden years will turn to lead with the inevitable hard knocks of life. But there can be some “golden hours,” if not years, that we can take advantage of.
In photography and in film the golden hour is that time just after sunrise or before sunset when the colors are subtle and rich, the shadows are long. The golden hour seems more pronounced in spring and fall when the sun is lower in the sky. And of those two seasons, fall is vastly more colorful. So if you are 70 (or older) now more than ever is the time to pay attention to your surroundings. There are some great sights to behold.
Those golden hours don’t last forever, of course. And, yes, winter does follow autumn, with all the symbolism that suggests.
Before we get maudlin here, let me say a word about the headline for this column, because it is what has dictated the ending that I am about to deliver. The first time I hit a decennial milestone and had a chance to write about it was in 1987, three years after the founding of U.S. 1. The headline, “Sex After 40,” jumped into my mind with no effort. As did the subhead: “What Works, What Doesn’t.” To me the headline worked because it was snappy and alliterative. And, since the column had nothing to do with sex, it proved the old journalistic adage: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good headline.
That was in 1987. In 1997, caught up in the busy summer of my life with young kids and a growing business, I was not writing a regular column for the paper. But by 2007 I was back in the column game. And “Sex After 60 — What Works, What Doesn’t” was the title of the birthday column. No sex, but still that alliteration. I can now imagine “Sex After Eighty” in 2027 — still a little alliteration (or is it assonance?) there. But I have to say: “Sex After Ninety” has no alliteration or assonance. Something has to give.
To end this on an uptick, let me turn to one of the great comedic minds of our era. A few months ago I went to a talk by Bob Mankoff, the recently retired cartoon editor of the New Yorker, who spoke about his life in the cartoon business and his memoir, written as he was turning 70. Mankoff had some observations about turning 70:
So you’re turning 70. Good news: It could be worse.
Bad news: It will be.
So you’re turning 70. Good news: 70 is the new 50.
Bad news: Dead is not the new alive.
And, Mankoff’s final thought, which enables me to deliver a touch of content to match that provocative headline I have used to lure you to this point:
So you’re turning 70. That means that when you wake up in the morning you’re stiff all over — everywhere except where you want to be.