Time Flies When You're Having Fun
By Manfred Diehl, PhD
This is my final column as acting president of Div. 20. Thus, for the past few weeks, I have found myself contemplating what I would like to make the focus of this final column, and numerous ideas have been spinning through my head. I finally decided that I would like to address two of those ideas. First, I would like to take this final opportunity to reflect once more on the issue of translating findings from research on adult development and aging to inform the public and to engage in advocacy. Second, I also want to address an issue that is often discussed by Div. 20's Executive Committee. Namely, how can we get more young colleagues involved in the activities of Div. 20 and the mission of APA?
Why do I keep coming back to the issue of translating research findings from psychological aging research for the public and for advocacy purposes? Well, there are several reasons. First, the public continues to look at the process of aging in mostly negative terms, and ageism continues to pervade our society. For example, despite long-standing laws such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA; signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967), discrimination based on age is quite common in the workforce. Similarly, prejudice and discrimination based on age in health care settings is a pervasive problem, as recent publications in some of our top journals show. Although we have made progress in recognizing the strengths and contributions of middle-aged and older adults, the different forms of prejudice and discrimination are often subtle, and we have a responsibility to fight them wherever we see them. Furthermore, negative views of aging and ageism also deny older adults roles in our society that could draw on their lifelong experiences and expertise and could illustrate that they are a form of natural resource.
Second, although I am convinced that the last word on aging and behavioral plasticity (or limits of behavioral plasticity) has not been spoken, I believe we have reasonably good evidence showing that performance in virtually all behavioral domains is characterized by great within-person variability and large between-person differences. This means that most adults with reasonable physical health tend to have reserve capacities and that psychologists can draw on these reserve capacities to optimize individuals' physical fitness, social-emotional functioning and cognitive functioning. More specifically, psychologists have been and continue to be instrumental in doing a good deal of the basic research that provides the data for evidence-based health promotion and intervention programs, and we need to actively translate these findings for the benefits of an aging population. In doing so, psychologists, including members of Div. 20, show that they claim ownership of their theoretical and empirical work and that they are at the forefront of addressing a major social issue.
Third, taking ownership of the research and educational work we are doing is also important for strategic reasons. One simple reason is that if we do not translate the content of our work, others will take the knowledge that we generated and will use it for their purposes. For example, if you go to the internet and search for websites that provide information on healthy aging, you will find many sources that provide information and tips without ever referring to the studies or the researchers who generated this knowledge. This is unfortunate and should give us reason to reflect on our own lack of translational efforts.
Finally, I am also convinced that psychologists can play a critical role in getting a very important message out. Namely, that optimal aging is a public health issue in the same way that the prevention of cardiovascular disease or Type 2 diabetes are public health issues. The current speed of population aging and the associated rise in health care costs have moved the topic of optimal aging from the periphery to the center of policy makers' attention, if for no other reasons than reasons of cost saving. Given this shift in attention, psychologists can play an important role in translating research findings for policy makers and for infusing new policies or public health initiatives with much needed empirical evidence. Because we cannot expect that policy makers and their assistants will read our articles in peer-reviewed journals, we need to develop and cultivate avenues that bring the knowledge to their desks so that they can incorporate it into their work for the benefit of the general public.
In terms of the second focus of this column, I want to talk about getting more young colleagues, including more graduate students, involved in the activities of Div. 20 and APA. This is a topic that is regularly discussed by Div. 20's Executive Committee and is linked to attracting new blood and brainpower to Div. 20. This topic has also been on my mind because my year as acting president created an unanticipated subjective aging experience for me as I realized that I have undeniably moved up in seniority. Although I have always encouraged my doctoral students to get involved with Div. 20, this past year increased my awareness regarding issues of intergenerational continuity and how critically important these issues are for the vitality of an organization such as Div. 20 and APA.
As a mentor and advisor to doctoral students, I wonder whether greater diversity in career planning and greater emphasis on team science has resulted in a less clearly defined identity as psychologist in our younger colleagues. In my department, faculty and students regularly discuss issues of professional identity, and I often observe that even advanced doctoral students may struggle with articulating their professional identity vis-à-vis other disciplines. I wonder how and to what extent these difficulties may affect their interest and willingness to get involved with Div. 20 and APA? Similarly, I wonder whether we focus enough on aspects of professional socialization and professional identity in our graduate curricula. Although someone might say that professional identity may be highly overrated in a world that increasingly emphasizes team science, I am inclined to argue that team science actually requires and benefits from a strong professional identity.
It is beyond the scope of this column to discuss all possible reasons for why a young colleague may or may not get involved in APA and Div. 20. However, I just want to point out a few opportunities that advisors have to foster an identity in their advisees or mentees that involves service for a professional organization. First, informing students and junior colleagues about available funding (e.g., fellowships), awards (e.g., early-career awards) or training opportunities (e.g., advanced training workshops) offered by APA is one mechanism to create interest in the organization. Second, nominating junior colleagues for early career awards or other recognitions of their scientific contributions to the field might be another way to generate a lasting connection. Third, recommending students and junior colleagues for service activities and committees that strategically meet their needs in terms of tenure and promotion. Fourth, getting graduate students involved in activities and committees that provide them with valuable learning experiences for later service activities, including reviewing manuscripts or chairing subcommittees. Finally, acting as a positive role model is very likely one of the most effective ways to motivate a younger colleague to get involved with APA.
In closing, I want to thank all members of the Executive Committee for their outstanding service during the past year. You all helped to run Div. 20 smoothly and effectively. Finally, I would like to thank Debbie DiGilio and the Committee on Aging for their tireless efforts on behalf of older adults and psychologists who work with older adults. Your advocacy is exemplary. I look forward to seeing all of you and many of our members at APA's 2017 Annual Convention, Aug. 3-6 in Washington, D.C. Have a great and productive summer!