Best New Ideas in Retirement: To age and retire well, try to have a plastic mind and a rubber soul


“Who run the world?” Geezers. And it should be that way, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says.

The complexion of world leaders and CEOs may be too white and too male, but his research suggests it’s definitely not too gray. “Boomers should be running everything,” Levitin told me. In fields ranging from radiology to construction, “you want someone who is 65, not 35, because it takes that much time to accumulate true expertise,” he says.

Yes, we need youthful vigor and hubris to challenge the status quo, but let me kick off MarketWatch’s second edition of The Best New Ideas in Retirement with this thought: Our culture probably spends too much time fetishizing the feats of the young and not enough taking stock of the wisdom of the olds.

Levitin’s book,“Successful Aging,” is optimistic reading for anyone who’s begun counting birthdays with trepidation. Our minds slow down and decline on many fronts as we age, but we also get wiser. (True Yodas are never young.)

“Wisdom comes from the accumulated set of things we’ve seen and experienced, our ability to detect patterns in those experiences, and our ability to predict future outcomes based on them,” Levitin writes.

As a kid I marveled at how my dad could always predict where movie plots were headed. That’s the same pattern recognition that prompts Taylor Swift to sing, “I think I’ve seen this film before,” at the ripe old age of 31. (Just imagine the knowledge she and Beyoncé will drop at 71.)

The wisdom of experience isn’t a given, of course. Old age produces as many Lears as seers. Which brings me to Levitin’s No. 1 advice for keeping our brains nimble: Don’t retire.

A mind is a terrible thing to retire. Like a muscle, the brain needs to be flexed, stretched and challenged. It needs to work out. Everyone gets atrophy just for not participating.

Not retiring doesn’t mean that careers should never end. But they should be replaced with new work, new pursuits, new pleasures, and in keeping with the theme of this series: new ideas.

Of course, many of us manage to retire our minds even as we keep showing up for work every day. In a wonderful talk on the need for self-renewal, John W. Gardner lamented that too many people suffer the fate of the barnacle, so set in its ways that “it spends the rest of its life with its head cemented to a rock.”

The good news is that the old don’t have to just roll over. We can learn new tricks, Levitin says. The latest research has found our minds are much more able to learn new skills and continue to grow well into old age than previously thought.

“Neuroplasticity continues until we die,” Levitin writes. “But, like reaction times, it does slow down, and the extent to which brain remodeling can occur is reduced as we age. One of the most protective things you can do against aging is to learn a manual skill when you’re young and keep it up. The next best thing you can do is to start learning something new when you’re old.”

Lifelong learning, and the need to regenerate are themes that run through The Best New Ideas in Retirement. We need to rethink this rite of passage and all its cultural, emotional and financial implications.

There are no shortcuts on the path to wisdom and contentment, but these stories all suggest that flexibility and openness to ourselves and others are key.

So stretch. Flex. Try to have a plastic mind and a rubber soul. Run this mutha.

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