“It’s all right, it’s OK, doesn’t really matter if you’re old and gray ... “
Lucille and I love to belt out that theme song introducing another episode of “New Tricks,” one of our favorite British detective series. It’s about three eccentric detectives brought out of retirement and coping with their own problems of age while using their unique, quirky talents to solve cold cases from the London Metropolitan Police ﬁles. The song puts the show’s genius in a nutshell.
America has been singing that song in a presidential campaign between a 74- and a 78-year-old — one guy old and gray, the other old and orange, same thing. The point is we’ve elected a new chief executive who, like some of us, is up in years. It’s all right, it’s OK! And here’s why it’s OK:
To start from the cautionary side, think about what’s called “professional decline.” You don’t have to be an athlete to know you can’t stay at the top of your game. Tech entrepreneurs tend to win their fame and fortune before age 30. People who make breakthrough scientiﬁc discoveries or big inventions generally peak in their 30s and start to decline in their 40s. The mandatory retirement age for air traﬃc controllers is 56.
Some professionals and business leaders peak later, as do some artists and writers. But in a job that asks for “ﬂuid intelligence” — mental processing speed (quick thinking) or sharp analytical capability, innovation or creativity — decline sets in earlier than we want to admit. How many over-70 contestants have you seen on “Jeopardy”?
Arthur C. Brooks cites research supporting that bad news in his article, “Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think,” published in The Atlantic, July 2019. At the end of his article, Brooks announced that he was walking away from directing a high-powered think-tank in Washington, D.C., a position that had earned him respect for excelling in ﬂuid intelligence. At 56, he was not aware of slippage in his performance, but as he said, “it was only a matter of time.” So he made his surprise move — into teaching.
Why teaching? That brings us to the GOOD news: There is another kind of intelligence that actually increases as we age. And it makes us better at some kinds of things. Brooks, following psychologist Raymond Cattell, calls it “crystallized” intelligence. This is an intelligence that is more like wisdom.
Wisdom is sometimes deﬁned as “knowledge about how to use knowledge,” how to recognize and apply what you’ve learned from past experience. “Think of it as possessing a vast library and knowing how to use it,” says Brooks. This kind of intelligence increases as a person accrues life-experience and does not play out until late in life, if ever. That’s why older people are often good teachers and why Brooks wisely made his professional move.
Both presidential candidates were hard-charging, ambitious and high-achieving in their earlier careers. Both lived by their ﬂuid intelligence and it worked for them.
Wisdom traditions East and West teach that there is a time to walk away from that mentality. With age comes the time to dedicate life to slower and deeper thinking (reﬂection), service to others and enjoying (and depending on) relationships more. That looks like a move from reliance on ﬂuid intelligence to crystallized intelligence, doesn’t it?
This age-related shift in intelligence and priorities seems to resonate with a widely read study done by Dean Keith Simonton of Stanford University. His 2018 article, “Intellectual Brilliance and Presidential Performance: Why Pure Intelligence Doesn’t Suﬃce,” analyzes biographies written about U.S. presidents from George Washington through George W. Bush.
Qualities he and his associates describe that correlate with exceptional presidential performance (the “intellectual brilliance” of the title) include: having wide interests (including art, music, reading literature and poetry); showing curiosity and insightfulness; having thought-through ideals and values; and having a degree of sophistication, being “complicated” as against being dull and commonplace.
Pure IQ doesn’t do it: Distinction lies in how the intellect is put to use.
So take heart! The old guy we elected as our next president talks the language of unity and knows how to listen to others. These assets are not only appropriate to his age, they are also what a divided, dangerously overheated country badly needs.
He makes no claim to be the smartest person in the room, but he knows how to “browse his library,” learn from his own experience of personal loss as well as political success, seek out and take advice from people expert in their ﬁeld. These are traits of successful aging. What will it be like to have a president who is more like a teacher and less like a tycoon?
I predict that our president-elect will have a successful term of oﬃce insofar as he demonstrates the qualities of an elder. Note well! Elder does not mean any “old guy.”
Elder means one whose power brings people together instead of driving them to distrust and hate each other.
An elder is one who can get beyond ego, who is not driven by personal ambition, glory and ﬂattery. An elder is one who has learned to pursue meaning and things of lasting value rather than appearance.
An elder is able to relax, ﬁnd peace within himself or herself, and be content.
An elder has exchanged sharp wit for seasoned wisdom.
Mr. Biden’s words were these on the night of his election, sensitive to those who had voted for the other candidate: “Now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. This is the time to heal in America.”
That is the kind of sensitive intelligence an elder would express.
That is the kind of goal crystallized intelligence wants to work toward.
And that’s why we’re singing hopefully, at our house, “It’s all right, it’s OK, doesn’t really matter if you’re old and gray — it’s all right, it’s OK, listen to what I say.”