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Anyone over the age of 45 may have had the wind taken out of their sails this week. The findings of a longitudinal research study just released by UCL indicate that memory loss begins at a much earlier age than previously thought. 

The large study involving interviews with over 7,000 civil servants found that over a ten-year period, there was around an 8 per cent decline in the mental reasoning of 65 to 70 year olds, but unexpectedly there was also a 3.6 per cent decline found among those aged 45 to 49. Despite probably just confirming what many people already knew, it can't help to boost the morale of anyone who is approaching or who has already entered into 'middle age'.

Still, it's not all bad news. This week the RSA released a new publication, Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship, which the older generation may find is an unlikely source of solace. A central part of the report’s message is that active citizenship and its associated activities (philanthropy, decision-making, voluntary work, relationship building etc.) demand from people an unseen set of values, attitudes and competencies. It just so happens that these increase and become more sophisticated as people get older.

We argue in the report that being able to navigate the ‘hidden curriculum’ of active citizenship requires people to have a certain level of ‘mental complexity’. By mental complexity we mean how we know, not simply what we know. Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard University, has outlined five orders of mental complexity, each representing a different ‘subject-object relationship’. Crudely put, the higher the order of mental complexity, the less we take as subject and the more as object. When we take things as subject, they ‘have us’; we cannot see them or reflect on them. When we take things as object, however, we can take a step back, have some perspective and consider things from a distance. All of which helps us to make more informed decisions, to be in control of our emotions and attitudes, and, as Kegan puts it, “to have a relationship to our actions.”

Our report argues that for people to be able and willing to contribute in a meaningful manner to society, it will require them to hold a certain level of mental complexity. Here we are talking about the fourth order (the “self-authoring mind”), where people are able to internalise the feelings of others and to subordinate their interests to theirs (see page 32 in the report for more details). The concern is that few people have actually reached this order of mental complexity. Indeed, an OECD supported study suggests that only one in five people have such mental competencies.

The reason this is relevant for the older generation is that age and mental complexity are shown to be correlated. Older people are far more likely to be at the fourth order of mental complexity than their younger counterparts, suggesting that their presence - particularly those long into retirement - will be critical in any efforts to build the Big Society.

How this could influence current practice, we don’t yet know. It may be, for example, that national initiatives like the community organising training scheme directly try to attract what Jennifer Berger, an expert in Kegan’s theories, has described as ‘village elders’. Alternatively, it may mean developing more initiatives like that of Senior Corps in the US, which connects experienced over 55s with non-profit initiatives that could benefit from their talents and expertise, or supporting new UK social enterprises like The Amazings. The one thing we do know is that the success of the Big Society and of wider attempts to nurture more vibrant communities over the coming years will be dependent to some extent on whether or not we appreciate and tap into the perspectives and judgement of our older generation.

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