In many professions, the young are beloved and the aged are forgotten. Forty is often considered retirement age in sports, and with some recent exceptions, film roles for women over 50 are few and far between, at least until they’re wrinkled and white-haired enough to fill the role of granny.
So we were curious about vocations where age is a boon; where folks gain status and reverence as they gather years. Here’s a list we’ve started of occupations that consider advanced age a good thing.
Consider Alice Neel, a portrait painter whose work was largely rejected by the establishment until she was in her 60s. It was her passion and her persistence that made her such a hit, leading to a major retrospective in her 80s. And Neel is not alone. The art knows no age – it’s all about what you produce and the ability to keep creative juices flowing and to stay relevant. Just look at the art- and fashion-world stir that 84-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama created last year with her dazzling Whitney retrospective and Louis Vuitton collection. (If you saw large red dots all around NYC, those were Kusama-inspired.)
One fine example of someone who stayed at the top of her game into her latter years was the French-born sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who died in 2010 at 98. She was already 70 when she had her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1982, and she continued to exhibit her haunting sculptures, containing plaster casts of mutton or room-sized metal spiders, until her death.
Bourgeois’s contemporary Nancy Spero was a force in the painting world until her death in 2009 at 93. Spero was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2006, at 90.
With Congress’s approval ratings at all-time lows, it might seem that no one is revered in politics, let alone older folks. However, voters don’t seem to discriminate against those over 65 who run for office. The average age of the 112th Congress is 62.2 years old – only slightly younger (nine-tenths to be exact) than that of the 111th Congress, the oldest in recent history. Up until very recently, that average skewed older thanks to a couple of truly senior members, like 89-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) and the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) serves as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at age 80. Members of Congress do not have a required retirement age; they decide for themselves when it’s time to leave the political boxing ring, or they may get voted out. (Top picture: Diane Weinstein)
The law profession tends to appreciate those with a lot of experience. The more cases lawyers or judges have worked on, the better they know the law – at least in theory. Our best example is the United States Supreme Court, where Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the oldest judge at 80. Some judges even serve into their 90s – it is a lifetime appointment after all. They work from October to around June (during recess they review upcoming cases); their workday is from 10 am–3 pm; and they have three or four clerks working for them. You’ll find several federal judges over 80, too; among those who are in their 90s is Solomon Blatt, Jr., who’ll turn 91 in August. Solomon serves in the U.S. District Court in South Carolina. And in the Eastern District of New York, United States federal judge Jack Bertrand Weinstein (pictured) turns 92 in August.
Universities traditionally reward those in their later years. Currently, in the United States, the median age of full professors is 55 years. Few associate professors reach this level before they are 40. Even retired professors, who hold the title “professor emeritus,” continue to teach while drawing a pension (they might even get office space). Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State, is now a professor at Georgetown University, at 76. Thomas A. Steitz, professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, won the Nobel Prize at the young age of 69. And at the University of Minnesota, Professor John Fraser Hart (above) turned 90 this year; he uses a Kodachrome slide projector and his collection of 50,000 slides in his geography classes.
Let’s face it: Most of our “starchitects,” living and dead, are old white guys: Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano were or are all designing well into their twilight years. Frank Lloyd Wright was still creating spaces when he was 92. Gehry continues to create buildings at 82, and Chinese-born I.M. Pei (okay, they’re not all old white guys) is still working at 94. His latest major project was the Macau Science Center in Lisbon, Portugal which opened in 2009.
Can you add to our list of occupations that most appreciate their older workers?