GRYON, SWITZERLAND — We should not take much note of years. But decades may be something else. And so I may be excused for pausing at the gate of a seventh decade to consider what course may run ahead.
Here in Europe - where populations are not growing, apart from a little migration - and in the United States, still growing apace, the talk is of people who are hanging on to life. Until recently, the tide of young baby boomers preoccupied us. But populations disturbed by a great war are returning to something closer to equilibrium, not slipping into senior imbalance.
Little creative thinking fixes on what is really only the third quarter of an individual's human existence. Health care, senior living, Social Security, retirement saving are important, but not the heart of the matter. They are the custodial side of living longer.
My early conclusion is that there is only a "now" course, not a course ahead and one behind. "Retirement years" may not exist except as they appear to others.
Age is not what it is taken to be. Even within the 30-year quarters of a 120-year life span (President Clinton himself has been musing about the growing numbers of centenarians), there is diversity. A 10- or 20-year-old is at a different stage than a 30-year-old. So from 60 to 90, the first phase of "seniorness" offers a variety of conditions.
Expectations do change. Individuals may themselves begin to back off, or organizations may begin to quit on their seniors. But adaptiveness to change has more to do with culture and personality than with age.
Horizons do widen with experience. Experience yields familiarity with paths that lead somewhere and with paths that do not. One learns what doing a job well feels like and what is a reasonable amount of time to allot for its doing.
Age groups poorly define individuals. One finds no more in common with the mass of people aged 60 than with contemporaries at 26.
I enjoy asserting to my children: "You and I are the same age. We differ on this subject not because we are of different generations but because we are different kinds of people. Age is not a factor. I am as young as you. Because we both inhabit this same moment, and there has never been a newer moment than right now, you and I are precisely the same age." They indulge this argument without reply.
Moderns reflect the seven-year cycles Joseph perceived for the agriculture of Egypt. Each 30-year quarter has itself roughly four parts. (You will read this nowhere else.) The first is from birth to the first grades of school. The second is through middle school. The third is high school and vocational training or college. The fourth is graduate school and/or what I call "first jobs."
The second quarter, ages 30 to 60, takes us in stages from journeyman jobs to master jobs, management, and senior management. In my case, after Harvard graduate school and "first jobs" in education, business, and journalism, I settled into a 30-year career of writing for this newspaper: seven years in Boston as an editorial writer, eight years in bureau work (urban affairs in Boston, Chicago/Midwest bureau chief, and Washington White House and national-affairs writer); then back to Boston as editorial page editor and editor, or senior management - all in roughly seven-year segments.
If well managed, why should not our third quarters continue the Joseph-like pattern of progressive phases? And the fourth quarter too?
* Richard J. Cattani is the Monitor's editor at large.