Bob’s Big Idea: why we are living longer - RSA

Bob’s Big Idea: why we are living longer

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  • Social brain
  • Spirituality

‘Bob’s Big Idea’: Harvard Professor Robert Kegan (Bob) has been arguing that we are living longer for a reason – to give us time to evolve a different order of consciousness (5th stage, or inter-individual in his model) to deal with the problems created by the prior 3rd (socialised) and 4th(self-authoring) levels of consciousness.

Older? Yes – always, alas. Wiser? Sometimes. More creative? It depends what you mean… In Spiritualise we argue that facing up to the inexorable nature of death is part of being more fully alive. But we rarely manage to achieve this, partly because of our cultural fixation with youth. “Hold on to the phase of life that keeps death at arms length”, we seem to say. But that’s a futile, unhealthy battle. In a society with good public mental health we would all feel that the best age to be is the age you currently are, but that would mean viewing the ageing process in a positive way that didn’t seem like a consoling fantasy.

Let’s start with the phases: In most OECD countries in the early 21st century, ‘childhood’ is thought to last around 18 years. Pre-birth and infancy are important parts of that, and ‘adolescence’ complicates matters, arguably a distinct state extending from young teenage years up to around 25. ‘Adulthood’ goes up to about 45, when we talk of ‘middle age’, and then around 65, at least until recently, we begin to talk of ‘old’ age, but that feels increasingly obtuse, mostly because so many people view this phase of life much more positively, and it’s hardly a minority interest.

Here’s the thing: “Of all the human beings throughout human history who have ever lived to 65 or more, two thirds of them are alive today.” – Robert Kegan (Speaking at the RSA c11 mins in video above)

Encore, Encore…

The phase of life between ending full-time work and dying is elongating and stabilising. ‘It’s a thing’, as they say. Such things are hard to measure and the 2/3rds figure may be a bit exaggerated; It has been used in adverts and I suspect the original statistic might have been: ‘Of all the human beings throughout human history who will ever live to 65 or more, two thirds are alive today’.

Regardless of the statistics, it’s an important phase of life that will soon last longer than childhood, but one we still don’t understand, appreciate or talk about much.

There are notable exceptions, including the university of the third age and our Social Brain Centre has ventured into this area here and here. Moreover, the wonderful-looking ‘Encore‘ organisation talk of this phase of life in terms of ‘second acts’ – an encore. Encore are recognising that this phase of life calls for new institutional forms to make the most of it, and I’m not sure if we have anything equivalent in the UK.

Bob’s Big Idea

While we definitely need new forms of practice, there is also a deeper angle, which is arguably somewhat mystical, but in light of Anthony’s well stated point yesterday about the importance of not dismissing new ideas, it’s one we should think over.

Harvard Professor Bob Kegan (one of my intellectual heroes) thinks we are living longer for a reason. And it’s not the ‘thin’ reason as he puts it, about advances in medicine and public health. He thinks we are living longer as a planetary immune response to planetary peril.

The problems created by levels of consciousness relating to tribal assimilation and ideological imperialism cannot easily be undone by those same forms of consciousness. Instead we need forms of insight and perspective that arise from a much more deeply reflexive take on ourselves and the world, and such forms of consciousness, Kegan argues, only tend to arise after middle age. The theoretical basis for this idea is in the videos above and below, but to some extent it is common sense. People who have lived for six decades not only have a certain amount of distilled perspective, they also have less to lose in saying what they really think.

Kegan calls this: “An entirely new phenomenon in the long history of being a human being…No other species lives ten, twenty, thirty, forty years after the age of reproduction…our species is collectively at work, trying to figure something out…And why does any species do what it does? To survive.”

It is an intricate argument, but well worth 20 minutes of your time, and I ask a couple of questions at the end to help clarify the case.

(If you want further background to this kind of perspective, I just came across this ‘Thketche’ of Kegan’s ideas on youtube).

Mature creative insight

We could end it there (and feel free to!) because at first blush Bob’s big idea sounds like the conventional claim that we get wiser as we get older, with a providential twist. But ‘Bob’s big idea’ is much deeper than that, and it begs some questions about what we should do with those ‘extra’ years. We definitely lose certain things as we get older – like physical resilience and our ability to quickly learn new things, but some things also consolidate and crystallise, for instance our ability to discern patterns in complex situations, and our understanding of ourselves and others is often enriched and matured. The wisdom paradox book covers this terrain quite well, as do various Ted talks on ageing.

Kegan’s point is that we don’t yet culturally recognise the adaptive value of these changes brought about through ageing in the way we should. Looking at this through the lens of creativity brings this point to life:

We don’t typically associate ageing with creativity, and when it comes to breakthroughs in specialised fields (‘Big C’ creativity), for instance in maths and sciences that’s probably right. To be creative in general, or in any particular domain, you typically need to know quite a lot about the matter at hand, but also retain a certain degree of nimbleness with the knowledge, and play around with ideas rather than assume things have to be as you learnt they had to be.

As you get older that kind of disposition may be harder to come by alone, when habit energy abounds, but not necessarily when you are together with others facing similar challenges. Indeed this point- that there may be important emergent properties when older people come together, or when older people work with younger people, that are distinct to that age range, is something worthy of exploration.

But what about ‘Big C’ creativity for intractable social problems and deciding between competing ethical commitments. What if in that case there is no substitute for life experience? We wouldn’t even know at present, because the age and stage in question seems undervalued, unappreciated, and we lack mechanisms to channel it effectively. On the question of how to live and contribute well after 60, we seem curiously unimaginative as a species.

Kegan’s point is not just that older people know a bunch of stuff; their value does not lie in quantitative measures of the old things they’ve accrued, like a cluttered charity shop. The point is that in the process of living and learning, relating and knowing, and understanding the nature, forms and limitations of such processes throughout life they are better placed to understand what needs to be done in complex situations that are not reducible to algorithms.

So if we take climate change for instance, we will definitely need ‘creative’ approaches to the challenge; or take the tragedy of loneliness, the madness of food waste, or how we deal with value conflicts and terrorism. On such issues it’s not like you walk into a room full of elders and say: here are the problems, what, oh wise ones, do you suggest we do?

That caricature gets in the way of genuinely helpful contributions that might be made if we don’t approach issues from the simplistic ‘problem-solution’ mentality to which we have become accustomed, but rather see if older people, when they are brought together, can co-create in a manner than is wiser and more effective because of their shared life experience.

We don’t yet know what this would mean in practice, although the elders give a glimpse, but it’s a promising and timely idea, and I would be happy to hear from anybody in the comments below who has an idea of how to give it practical traction. The RSA has over 13,000 fellows over 60, so if you are one of them it would be especially interesting to hear your thoughts.


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  • Jonathan

    We are developing the concept of The Third Act in life which is all about the shift from Independent to Inter-Independence (Kegan's 4th to 5th order of consciousness). It would be good to catch up and talk about this. I think your 13,000 fellows over 60 would be very interested. see I have mentioned this to some of your colleagues before. 

    For instance, I am doing a seminar with UCD (Univ College Dublin) in March who sent an email to 11,500 graduates (over 60) and they had 66 bookings within a week. As it was oversubscribed, we are now running a second seminar in April and will offer The Third Act as part of their open day in June. 

    As you will see from our website we are also running workshops, seminars, conferences and programmes helping people to transition, and are managing The Third Act Organisation along self-organising and self-managing principles.


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