longevity

GE boosters like me point out that our graduates will face more careers than we did, and certainly more than our parents and grandparents did.  The new premium on versatility supports our calls for broad learning in the baccalaureate:

present

We argue that it will be easier for our students to negotiate those new, unpredictable transitions if they leave us knowing how to approach unscripted problems from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

To that I’d add that we should also be ready with better means of Prior Learning Assessment, or PLA.  We want something more nuanced and authentic than traditional transcript evaluation to see what students already know, and what they still need.

So, generous helpings of general education on the first round, and nimble PLA for the later ones, even if nothing else were changing.

But other things are.

As I write this we’re in year two of an advertising blitz from Prudential Financial called Bring Your Challenges, admired by its peers in the life insurance industry.  It’s characterized by billboards and TV spots chirping that one in three babies born today will live past a hundred, that our own retirement will be of unprecedented duration, health and mental acuity, and that we could all be in for a really long stretch of personal fulfillment.

The purpose of these sunny predictions, of course, is to frighten us into putting more of our assets under Prudential management.  The subtext:  better save a pile of money.

As pieces of rhetoric they deserve the admiration, with a friendly Harvard prof delivering the good news, and visual layouts that present outliers as though they’re averages:

stickersYet for all their manipulation, the messages are essentially true:  we are going to be around longer.  But if history’s any judge, we won’t spend the extra years in idylls of self-realization; we’ll be working.  (A recent report suggests college grads may be likelier than others to delay retirement, since their work tends to be more rewarding and less physically taxing.)

This extension of lifespans and contraction of career-spans will have a compounding effect, as we cram more walks of life into each life:

futureAnd to me, that adds a third item to higher ed’s longevity-related to-do list.  Yeah, we need a muscular GE core, and yeah, we need better PLA.  But we also need to prepare our grads better for something humans haven’t been very good at, and that’s changing our minds.

When you look backward you notice the power of generational shifts.  To take some prominent examples from U.S. history, electing a Tennessee “ruffian” like Andrew Jackson (John Quincy Adams’s characterization) was easier for voters who’d grown up knowing nothing but independence from England.  For their forebears, appearing “presidential” meant hailing from the Virginia and Massachusetts aristocracies.

Likewise, it took four generations after the Emancipation Proclamation for a critical mass of Americans to find segregation and Jim Crow laws intolerable, and another two after that to elect an African-American president.  As long as our lives are relatively short, progress is easier:  this isn’t people changing, so much as a people changing.

In less prominent spheres the experience is similar.  Those who work in higher education may see annual updates to the Mindset List, produced by a pair of professors at Beloit College to show how incoming freshmen view the world.  An excerpt from this year’s list, for the cohort born in 1995:

8. Having a chat has seldom involved talking.

9. Gaga has never been baby talk.

10. They could always get rid of their outdated toys on eBay.

11. They have known only two presidents.

12. Their TV screens keep getting smaller as their parents’ screens grow ever larger.

13. PayPal has replaced a pen pal as a best friend on line.

14. Rites of passage have more to do with having their own cell phone and Skype accounts than with getting a driver’s license and car.

15. The U.S. has always been trying to figure out which side to back in Middle East conflicts.

16. A tablet is no longer something you take in the morning.

The Mindset List, like presidential politics, highlights an upside to the cap on human longevity:  like forest fires, our mortality rejuvenates us.  It gets us out of the messy and difficult work of personal recalibration as times change.

And as we live longer, that escape hatch is shrinking.

Here’s a thought experiment:  think of something culturally abhorrent to you, like polygamy or incest.  Say, routine and profound invasions of your privacy on behalf of public health, or to prevent gun violence.  Then picture living to the age of 120, and finding yourself among descendants for whom such practices are completely acceptable, legally protected, and even celebrated.

It may not be with these examples, but it will happen.  To us maybe, and to our students definitely.

How do we educate for that?

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