Culture

As Boomers Retire, Should We Expect an Elder-Led Revolution?

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Baby boomers, aka the children of the ’60s or the great generation that brought the world the sexual revolution and Woodstock, have revolutionized the idea of what it means to be older. They were the generation, after all, that coined the phrase “don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Activist baby boomers planted the seed for this kind of thinking a long time ago when they came up with the concept of ageism. Ageism is discrimination or negative stereotyping based on chronological age. Ageism was put on a par with sexism (discrimination against women), homophobia (fear of homosexuals) and — the most inauthentic and unsubstantiated “phobia” ever to work its way into the social canon — Islamophobia.

Years ago, Philadelphia’s very own Maggie Kuhn, the founder of the Gray Panthers, was a leader in the fight against age discrimination. But this liberal woman with socialistic tendencies managed to do a good thing because she influenced how the boomers’ anti-ageist philosophy helped change the way we think about age. Kuhn’s age activism also helped change the language of age. Many boomers, for instance, have resolved never to use the word “old” when referring to themselves. This thought stems from a sketchy New Age belief that when you use a word repeatedly you give it psychic power; when you constantly say “I’m getting old,” “I am so old,” etc., you will in fact get old at a faster rate than you would if you didn’t say such things over and over again.

Other words like “geezer,” “old fogey,” “old maid” and, to a much lesser extent, “dirty old man” have fallen out of the boomer lexicon. They all point to stereotypes and negative connotations concerning age. (Why, for instance, is it any worse to be a dirty old man than it is to be a dirty young man?) In some circles, the use of the word “senior” is being scratched and replaced with “older” or “elder.”

But just because ageist words and thoughts are no longer popular with boomers doesn’t mean that the larger culture has bought the concept. While older people today may feel and even look younger than their parents did at their age, far too many younger people still see them as older and therefore somehow out of the loop.  

This summer I attended an intergenerational barbecue and noticed that the twenty-something people present had a terrible time conversing with guests out of their age range. Although this changed somewhat as the party progressed (thanks to cocktails and Pinot Noir) there was still a core group who seemed deathly afraid to relax with people who were not their age. (Perhaps this was nothing more than a symptom of the iPhone-obsessed generation who don’t in fact realize that the way we become more human is by paying attention to one another.)

Youth still reigns supreme in America, especially in the world of advertising. Consider the number of companies that won’t hire people over 40, or that lay off women executives who are past their prime. Ageism in the television broadcast industry is so flagrant that female anchorpersons are usually “retired” at the first signs of a double chin or gray hair. About the only place in American life where being older is actually an asset seems to be the world of politics. It’s no secret that most Americans want leaders who seem wise and mature, not ones with bed hair, holes in their earlobes, and tattoos.

Scientists say that by the middle of this century we may see 20- to 40-year leaps in the average life span, thanks to advanced drugs, biotherapies, and the cure of many degenerative diseases. While that may be good news to boomer visionaries and most of us in general, what does that mean in terms of quality of life issues? If science makes it possible to be healthy and energetic until well into our 90s, society will have to change.

Older workers will have to be welcomed back into the corporations and television networks. Philadelphia’s TV stations will have to stop changing their news anchors at the first sign of a wrinkle or gray hair every 12 months or so.

What sense would it make if the world were full of healthy 90-year-olds walking around with nothing to do? Living longer in a world where the national economy continues to worsen and where personal finances plummet would be a gamble. Being poor and elderly would not be a good life unless you lived in a convent or a monastery, or at home with loved ones who cared about you (and didn’t throw you into a nursing home), but it could be a devastating and very hard existence otherwise.

There’s also this: Would living longer guarantee that we wouldn’t burn out emotionally even though we look fit enough to run a marathon?

Bioconservatives like Daniel Callahan and Leon Kass take a dim view of biotechnological progress that could increase the human lifespan to 150. Mr. Callahan believes that “there is no human social good coming from the conquest of death.” Mr. Kass, the former head of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, says that “the finitude of human life is a blessing for every human individual, whether he knows it or not.” San Francisco author Lillian Rubin, who is 83, claims she is sick of the mainstream media singing the praises of the joys of old age. In her book 60 On Up: The Truth About Aging in America, Ms. Rubin writes that because people are living longer they are possibly facing 35 years or more of retirement. “And it ain’t all gonna be a walk on the beach,” she insists. “I can hardly remember a time getting together with friends in their late 60s and older, when they weren’t talking about getting tired, bored with what they were doing, what they were going to do in retirement.”

As for the ads in the ubiquitous AARP magazine that most Americans begin receiving on their 50th birthdays, Ms. Rubin says they are among the worst offenders, “featuring thin barely wrinkled, happy gray-haired couples on the beach. Come on,” she says, “this is not life!” The upsetting truth is, to someone who is 24, anyone over 30 is old; over 40 is ancient, and anything beyond that is simply inconceivable. Conversely, it is also true that the older one gets the less age-conscious one becomes. For the older person there’s a kind of forgetfulness about age and age differences. Only younger people call attention to the fact that someone is older — it is the young who are age-obsessed.

What Ms. Rubin and the bioconservatives are saying is that living long for the sake of living long is not enough. Unless the mind and the emotions can be rejuvenated, unless the spirit can be rekindled or reinvented, what’s the point of sticking around if life has simply exhausted you?

Of course, countering this attitude is the powerful, healthy, well-financed, and age-defying generation of new elders who have every intention of creating a memorable, new definition for “old” as they launch what promises to be their last revolution.