“An 83-year-old Vietnam veteran isn't sitting quietly in retirement.” “Johnnie Jones’ age isn’t stopping him from learning.” Those statements from WDSU.com and U.S. Veterans Magazine are just a few examples of the effusive praise the media heaped on Johnnie Jones as he prepared to receive his Ph.D. in sociology from LSU recently. The Advocate celebrated Jones on its front page. But I believe there's more to the story.
Hidden in the accolades are some unspoken assumptions about older people — that 83-year-olds often aren’t physically and mentally prepared for the rigor of higher education. And while most of us wouldn't have said so aloud, the attention on Jones might have suggested that his degree was really an ambition worthy of someone much younger. After all, a younger person will have a longer time to make use of that newly minted knowledge. If Jones was 26, no one would have noticed. If he was 14, we’d call him amazing. But 83 is an oddity.
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Jones' accomplishment evoked such a response because our educational system — indeed, our culture at large — is deeply rooted in serving the young. But change is in the air. As far back as 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics found nearly one in 10 undergraduate students enrolled were age 40 and older. A subsequent report by the same group revealed that “nontraditional" students, those over age 25, made up 41 percent of college campus attendance in 2015. In a survey by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, 72 percent of respondents over age 50 and not yet retired said they envisioned some manner of work after retirement. Many of them will be entering educational institutions to become better equipped for what Age Wave Founder and CEO Ken Dychtwald calls “the power years.” Research clearly points to the graying of college campuses.
Many colleges, universities and related institutions are proactively embracing and accelerating this trend. More and more places of higher learning are initiating programs designed to help older adults gain skills and credentials and transition to roles focused on making a difference. The Encore.org website list 11 such initiatives including Harvard, Stanford and Notre Dame. Chip Conley’s Modern Elder Academy, a self-described “boutique resort for midlife learning and reflection," is a case in point. Since its November 4 opening, more than 150 people have taken classes. The average age of students is 54. Baby Boomers, by their sheer numbers, have reshaped all of the institutions they have encountered. Higher education will experience their impact twice — once, as many of the Boomers first entered college many years ago, and now, as legions of Boomers seek to extend their learning.
One of the foremost, if not fully anticipated, byproducts of the increased presence of older adults on college campuses is their engagement with younger students. Schools and programs are recognizing the benefits of the wisdom and life experiences as valuable complements to classroom instruction. As a Fellow in the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard, I witnessed firsthand the energy and innovation that emerged from these intergenerational relationships.
Older adults have much to offer our world. But in order to truly benefit from their contributions, we must begin to think differently. Old dogs can learn new tricks — and teach a few also. We must prepare ourselves for the revolution that's beginning to happen. As Dychtwald said in a recent conversation, “ we must be ready for the “90-year old who pens a book of poems, the 75-year old who falls in love, and the 85-year-old who gains citizenship.”
Jones should be celebrated. But there is so much more to his story than the oddity of his age. He survived Vietnam Nam and serious illness. He persevered through multiple interruptions to complete his studies.
I also believe he should be honored as being a part of the vanguard setting the course for many to follow. For all of you who fall prey to the “maybe I’m too old” line of thinking, allow this to be your call to action. Write the book you’ve been contemplating. Start painting the masterpiece you’ve imagined. As John Glenn remarked 20 years ago, “just because I’m 77 doesn’t mean I don’t have dreams”.
Raymond A. Jetson heads Metromorphosis, a Baton Rouge-based nonprofit that focuses on urban communities. He’s a fellow with Encore Public Voices, a national program in which older community leaders think and write about issues of public concern.