Filmed on Wednesday February 9, 02011

Mary Catherine Bateson

Live Longer, Think Longer

The daughter of Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, anthropologist/linguist Mary Catherine Bateson is the author of Composing a Further Life (2010); Willing to Learn (2004); Composing a Life (2001); With a Daughter's Eye (1984); and Arabic Language Handbook (1967).

We're not just living longer, we're thriving longer, but so far we seem to be thinking shorter. Aging societies the world over can benefit from increased longevity because human lives have added a new stage---what Bateson calls "Adulthood II: the age of active wisdom." People of grandparent age, finding themselves with more energy and health than obsolete stereotypes had led them to expect, are seeing their lives whole and the world whole and taking on radically new activities in light of that perspective. These older adults have the potential to bring a longer perspective to decision making that affects the future.

Mary Catherine Bateson is a cultural anthropologist now 71, the daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Her famed 1989 book Composing a Life showed how women were learning to treat their necessarily fragmented careers as a coherent improvisational art form. She is also the author of Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom.

Parenting Earth

The birth of a first child is the most intense disruption that most adults experience. Suddenly the new parents have no sleep, no social life, no sex, and they have to keep up with a child that changes from week to week. "Two ignorant adults learn from the newborn how to be decent parents." Everything now has to be planned ahead, and the realization sinks in that it will go on that way for twenty years.

More than with any other animal, human childhood dependency is enormously prolonged. That's a burden on parents and the species, but that long childhood is what makes us so adaptive, so capable of hope and love, so able to think ahead. It makes us the time-binding species.

Lately there's been a new development in the human lifecycle---extended adulthood. In the twentieth century human lifespan got thirty years longer. "Increased longevity," Bateson proposed, "may make a difference for the human species as momentous as our long dependent childhood." A whole new stage of life has emerged---what Bateson calls Adulthood II.

In the old days a child would be lucky to have one living grandparent. These days kids have seven or eight grandparents of various sorts, and their laps are not available because the oldsters have gone back to school, or eloped with somebody, or started new careers, or are off cruising the world.

They say, "I don't feel 60!" That's because they internalized stereotypes of "60" that no longer apply. A lot of cultural baggage about age now has to be thrown out, just as with previous liberation movements---civil rights, women's rights, gay rights. With each new equality comes new participation. Women who fought for the right to work, for example, get insulted afresh by the idea of mandatory retirement.

So our elders will be active, but will they be wise? It's not a given. "Experience is the best teacher only if you do your homework, which is reflection," Bateson said. Adulthood II offers most people the time to reflect for the first time in their lives. That reflection, and the actions that are taken based on it, is the payoff for humanity of extended adulthood.

Herself reflecting on parenthood, Bateson proposed that the metaphor of "mother Earth" is no longer accurate or helpful. Human impact on nature is now so complete and irreversible that we're better off thinking of the planet as if it were our first child. It will be here after us. Its future is unknown and uncontrollable. We are forced to plan ahead for it. Our first obligation is to keep it from harm. We are learning from it how to be decent parents.

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