Living Longer: The Pros and Cons of Aging

How status and sex changes for 60-plus seniors.

March 31, 2008 — -- It won't surprise you to learn that some of the country's top young comedians draw humor from the topic of aging — and most often, the audience responds with big laughs. While racist jokes are taboo in this country, ageism is still fair game.

We asked Stephen Dubner, co-author of the book "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything," to examine for us some of the implications of living longer. He concludes that aging may actually become a new barometer of status.

"There will be too many older people with too much market power, too much political influence, with too much momentum to create any other kind of situation," says Dubner.

As baby boomers are likely to live longer, the next generation will need to rethink its inheritance.

"There's this thing called the 'great wealth transfer' we've been hearing about, how trillions of dollars will come from the older generation to the next. In the old days you could depend on Grandma and Grandpa's money to send your kids to college. Maybe not anymore. Maybe they'll be using that up," says Dubner.

Those aren't the only social changes of living longer, according to Dubner. He says that cities may become safer if more elders migrate from the suburbs back to the city.

Love and Sex

Will there also come a time when 60 becomes the new sexy?

And if we live to be well over 100, are we really going to have just one partner for all that time? Dubner says you shouldn't expect to marry in your 20s "until death do us part."

"Do we kind of ritualize a kind of serial marriage culture in this country, where you have your marriage in your 20s and 30s, where you have the children, then your marriage in your 40s and 50s where you have a partner with whom you do midlife stuff, and then your marriage later on?" says Dubner.

"I think there's going to be a lot of changes in what economists would call the marriage market or the love market."

Seniors who suddenly find themselves single may venture into the uncharted waters of this new "love market" while attending gatherings set up just for their age groups.

Risa Glaser, event organizer for 8minuteDating, believes that you never lose the need to have a companion in your life — especially as you age.

"It really feels great to put people together and give people a place to meet and, hopefully, make a friend or a romantic interest for the future," she explains.

Participants in the 60- to 75-year-old group didn't feel that their ages held them back when it came to finding love.

"Lonely is lonely at 20, lonely is lonely at 40. Coming here, everybody is looking for that special someone, looking for love. Just because you're older doesn't mean you don't want that same kind of passion that you remember when you were younger," says Maxine Monopoli, a widow from New Jersey, of her reasons for trying 8minuteDating.

Another senior attendee, Rosalie Sussman, told us she was looking for a younger man, because she knew that she may outlive partners her own age. Dubner agrees that women may need to think outside the box when looking for new relationships.

"It's not hard to imagine that with more men dying earlier, which has always been the case, there will be a lot of older women who presumably want to have a lot of sex," says Dubner. He compares his theory to economics — if a good is scarce or expensive, we turn to substitutes.

"If elderly men are scarce for elderly women, they may turn to other elderly women. So we may see a boom in elderly lesbianism," says Dubner.

Can You Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?

But how will elders fill their time during all those extra years? Dubner believes we shouldn't underestimate the abilities of older people because there aren't too many things that they can't learn, be it languages, music or computers.

In our segment, we wanted to put that to the test and see if older people can really learn a new skill such as juggling. Professor K. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University and professional juggler Don Rapp taught a group of 8 to 12-year-olds and a group of seniors. After only three days of training sessions, they found that many older folks were getting the hang of juggling just as well as the younger kids.

"As you age, you continue to be able to learn. This juggling experiment shows that there's not much difference in people's capacity as they age," said Professor Ericsson.

At the end of his lessons, 80-year-old Rapp said that teaching an old dog new tricks is vital for living longer.

Imagine the possibilities: a second career in your 60s or third career in your 80s. Dubner says life will become just like a series of short stories. And as we're able to live longer, the doors to all kinds of opportunities will be open to us.

"There will come a time when being old is cooler than being young, because what being old will represent is power — it will represent money, predicts Dubner.

"It will represent having survived. It will represent wisdom."

Purchase a copy of the Barbara Walters special, 'Live to Be 150' on DVD.