“We must take advantage of people until the end, all they have to offer, and we must do all we possibly can to create the best societies”


We speak to Adela Cortina, an Emeritus Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the University of Valencia, and a member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, about the ‘rejuvenation’ of our societies. Following on from the theme of her talk at the Seminar on Ageing, Economy and COVID-19, organized by the Ageingnomics Research Center, we delve into the different ways of understanding age and her notion of being guided by our personal age, that combination of: our biological age, which is the particular, unique, unrepeatable life process for each of us; our chronological age, determined implacably by the calendar; and our social age, which is what societies typically lay down in a traditional manner and order, using conventional milestones such as retirement.

These pandemic times seem to us to be so dark, even medieval (in the worst sense). That is why the concept you referred to in your speech at the Seminar on Ageing, Economy and COVID-19 proved so refreshing. For you, the world is not ageing, but rather rejuvenating. Could you tell us why?
It is generally felt that the world is ageing, because the number of elderly people is incr easing and the birth rate is plummeting. It therefore seems that gray hair is gaining ground over dark or blond hair, and that this points to a widespr ead ageing process. However, that’s not exactly what’s happening; rather, we are witnessing a tremendous rise in longevity, with people enjoying increased life expectancy, but also greater quality of life. Not only are we living longer, but we are in better shape, we take better care of ourselves and stay more active. The result, therefore, is a rejuvenated society.

At our age our mothers looked older than us, never mind our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. I remember well the portrait of my grandmother when she was the same age I am now, and she looked twice as old as me. What’s more, she dressed all in black and had a forbidding glare.

Language sets its own traps and rejuvenating sounds just as positive or virtuous as ageing sounds negative. How could that perception be changed? Do we need an empowerment process for seniors?
We need to remember that the important thing is our personal age, the biographical age of each person. But it’s true that our chronological age and the social age imposed by conventional wisdom really leave their mark on us and, inevitably, have a bearing on our selfesteem. But, above all else, it reveals what people do with their lives.

Considering people who reach the administrative retirement age as unproductive, incapable of contributing anything to society, is clearly a mistake, as it’s false, but also not very smart. It entails squandering energy, when what we need is to make use of all the available vigor we have to build a better society.

When you were younger, did you think being 73 would be anything like how you are living now? How has your own perception of the natural process of growing older changed?
The truth is that I never thought about what it would be like at 73 or any other age. I live for the moment; there is so much to do each day that I throw myself enthusiastically into a multitude of tasks and that keeps me buzzing. Obviously I’ve lost out in physical agility and I notice that; but I’ve also gained as regards appreciating the glass half-full and I rely more on this, rejecting the half-empty view. Doing things with a social and personal purpose remains the key.

Considering people who reach the administrative retirement age as unproductive, incapable of contributing anything to society, is clearly a mistake, as it’s false, but also not very smart

Part of the whole discrimination process is the rampant invisibility. Have we also employed this tactic with the elderly? Do you miss greater visibility for our senior citizens? Or, at least, another form of visibility, perhaps less paternalistic?
I must admit that I don’t like talking about ‘the elderly’ or ‘the young’. That’s something sociologists love doing, dealing with the big picture of populations, groups and large numbers. In ethics, we prefer to speak of small numbers and, above all, individuals. People of a similar age are all very different and, for this reason, each of us has to compete with ourselves in order to nurture our best options in life, whatever our age might be. In my view, that’s the aim of those who strive to ensure people over retirement age remain active. That’s what excellence is all about: competing with ourselves in order to give back to society the best we have to offer. And a democracy is not built on mediocre people, but rather excellent individuals in this social, not individualistic, sense.

Families are the contexts within which the most natural exchanges between generations take place. However, in advanced societies, that kind of extensive network of relationships seems increasingly rare. What other kind of space could prove necessary for these intergenerational encounters? The trend seems to be quite the contrary, actually producing age ghettos…
Fortunately, there are already forums in which people from different generations dialog with each other and really appreciate the wealth of experience others bring to the table. The best way to break down barriers is to work together, those positive-sum games in which everyone wins. But there are also very interesting proposals afoot in the economic world, such as that of Ageingnomics to “rejuvenate the economy with a silver-haired population.” As the Nobel Economics Laureate Amartya Sen so wisely puts it, the economy has the task of helping create good societies, and we need a genuine ‘gray hair revolution’, to coin the phrase used for the title of the book by Antonio Huertas and Iñaki Ortega.

The birth rate is constantly falling, which also means that many of us will be senior citizens, but not grandparents. What does it mean for society that there will be a growing number of people who have only been a son or daughter, but never a parent or grandparent?
Like everything in this life, it depends on those people having had some experience of friendship, love, solidarity or devotion; of having lived in a family environment, but also in a neighborhood, in a profession, in school, in one of those religious or secular charitable organizations that give their all as they express their compassion with their ability to share the joy and sadness of others, and to dedicate their time and efforts to them.

Labor practices have undergone various waves of flexibilization over the past 40 years, but retirement seems to be a sacrosanct issue. How can a productive retirement be promoted, beyond simply being a consumer? To what extent are seniors themselves responsible in that situation?
Fortunately, there exists a large number of people who do not retire from active life when they reach retirement age; rather, they continue turning their hands to those activities they always wanted to do, yet were unable to. An excellent experience in this regard is that of the Senior Citizens Universities – or whatever they are called – that allow so many people eager for culture to take advantage of university resources.

Could retirement not be viewed as a kind of planned obsolescence? Are we heading toward an end to retirement from an economic standpoint, or do you feel it will remain one of those immutable milestones in people’s lives?
Retirement is gradually adopting more flexible formats and it would be great if the voluntary aspect were to increase – with this possibility left open – and it were no longer an obligatory step. Some would continue performing their same job, while others would jubilantly take retirement – as the Spanish verb ‘jubilarse’ implies – given that the time had come to change activity or, simply, to take it easy. But what can never be ignored is the care required by those who can no longer look after themselves, an area where society is gambling its ethical credibility.