Aging Artists: Engaged, Productive and Far from Retirement

As the first wave of America’s baby boomers hits retirement, the country as a whole has gone through its own aging, not so much in numbers or attitude, but in awareness of what has yet to come.  In our youth-centered culture, the words “aging” and “old” leave a bad taste in our mouths and bring up images of nursing homes and bedpans.  Yet the reality is that we all have been aging since the day we were born.  Rather than fight it, aging is more gracefully done when it’s embraced, not just as an inevitability, but as an experience for opportunity and growth.

Yet who in America can we look to for examples of how aging can actually improve a person’s life?  The Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University’s Teachers College turned to those who have always been at the forefront of innovating new attitudes — artists.  Earlier this month, they released a new study called STILL KICKING, which “provides the first needs assessment of aging performing artists in the metro areas of Los Angeles and New York.”  230 artists in New York and 52 artists in Los Angeles, ages 62-97, were interviewed for the study.  Over 90% of the respondents consider themselves professional performing artists.

“One of the major points in our study on older artists is that older artists are a model for society — on terms of things like flexibility, resilience, putting the good news and the bad news into their work,” the study pointed out.  “A lot of the things that baby boomers are seeking, older artists have been doing all their lives.”

“This,” researchers pointed out, “is one case where artists can show the way.”

According to the study, the average aging performing artist is about 72-73 years old and lives alone in either a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment that (s)he has no intention of leaving.  Over half have at least a college degree; many apprenticed in the past and continue to train in his/her craft today, and they make a median income of $30,000 a year.  Over half of the respondents say they are not retired, and only 28% NYC / 33% LA performers consider themselves semi-retired.  Most belong to a professional union, have health insurance and over half of them communicate at least daily or weekly with other artists.

With age comes confidence, and many aging artists take more artistic risks than when they were younger, which lead to deeper creative experiences.  “NYC aging performers are satisfied with their work, their identity of being artists, and have average-high self-esteem when compared with the general population,” the study found.  Overall, the average aging performer is validated by his/her lifetime career, and over 85% would do it all over again.

“Aging artists, who have learned how to adapt their whole lives, can be a model for society, especially as baby boomers retire and multiple careers become the norm,” the study said.  For many of these performers, retirement isn’t only a financial impossibility, but an emotional one as well.  Skipping retirement doesn’t mean that these artists haven’t made significant preparations for end-of-life decisions.  Ninety-two percent of aging performers have a will, compared to 42-55% of the general population.  Over half have a health proxy and power of attorney, and just under half of them have an estate plan.

Yet working through retirement comes with its own set of problems, namely physical limitations, lower incomes and discrimination, mostly due to ageism.  “As you get older, you become invisible,” a 68-year-old actor in New York lamented.  Eighty-six percent of the artists interviewed said they were denied job opportunities because of discrimination.  “Ageism is so subtle: People who don’t think they are experiencing it are experiencing it.  People who they think don’t have it do have it,” a 72-year-old actor in New York explained.  “In the arts, there’s so much focus on supporting young people, it’s assumed that, if you’re old, you don’t have anything to offer.”

Despite discrimination and end-of-life plans, these performers have no intention of slowing down.  “Discrimination against age is the younger generation’s loss,” a 78-year-old actress in Los Angeles declared.  It’s this resilience that keeps them going, making them powerful teachers in how we make creative choices today and plan for tomorrow.  Researchers found that “participants described a deeply held belief in the value art provides for society.  This might help to explain why artists ‘accept’ less than ideal life circumstances.  Our study illustrates artists’ deeply held belief that ‘art is essential,’ which then encourages and motivates them to continue with the work they so deeply believe in, regardless of the evidence that their work may affect their economic, physical and emotional health.”

“A greater understanding of aging artists’ survival mechanisms, their relationship to their work, to each other, and to the social systems which make their work possible can provide a beacon for a lifetime of meaning, often self-motivated and self-generated,” the study concluded.  “This meaning is something to pass on to future generations and as part of their early and continuing education.  It is a guide to what is most central in our lives, and to our individual legacies.”

Related Articles:

Recovered Eisenhower Speech Underscores His Commitment to Save Art

Why You Should Give a Damn About Arts Funding

Artist Philanthropy: Growing in Numbers and Strength

Photo courtesy of Stepan Mazurov via Flickr

Photo courtesy of David Shankbone via Flickr


LMj Sunshine
James Merit5 years ago

Interesting article, thank you.

LMj Sunshine
James Merit5 years ago

Interesting article, thank you.

Jo Asprec
Jo Asprec7 years ago

We can learn a lot from the experience and artistry of these older artists. Inspiring! Thanks for the article!

Lilithe Magdalene

Rock on!

Vera T.
Vera T7 years ago

I do just about everything I did whilst young and I'm nearly 68 and took up belly dancing at the age of 60 - if you're fit and feel young why not ?- as long as you know when you're making a fool of yourself and act accordingly - age is just a chronological no. - death is worse.

K s Goh
KS Goh7 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Parvez Z.
Parvez Zuberi7 years ago

thanks for sharing the article

Barbara V.
Barbara V7 years ago

I started out with a voice that would have gotten me to the Met had my background been supportive in that direction. But happily, I have three other major talents, one of which is art. I don't mind getting on (I'm 75) as long as I can go outside, sit on the stoop, and draw and paint animal portraits. I love the arts; they're my life, my love, my very existence!!! Music has always been number one, though--great music!

Miranda Lyon
Miranda Lyon7 years ago

I appreciated Vance's comments below, so I don't want my comments to be taken as aimed at him personally. But, by golly, I'm just plain old...and when my 68 1/2 years old body gets up every day there's nobody of any age trapped in it. The 25 year old I once was lived experiences which are encoded in this old lady...along with the experiences of all the mes I've been along the way, from my earliest memories right up through yesterday. I wouldn't mind having the right knee I had when I was 25, but I messed it up initially on a great hike in the Catalina Mountains of Southern Arizona and I have some great memories and learning from that day that I wouldn't trade for anything. I wouldn't mind still having the thick braids I used to have, but the trade-off is white hair that one of my students described as shiny like Christmas three tinsel...I wouldn't give back that remark for anything. I contain all the mes I've been, but none of them are trapped in me...they live on in me, they remind me of everything I've learned, they inspire me. It's never over. I'm only 68! Who else I've yet to be remains a tantalizing mystery.

Laurie D.
Laurie D7 years ago

I have to ask. WHY do we have to define differing groups and then act surprised when they contribute to us as a whole? Perhaps this is part of our lack of human (and critter) awareness!