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Growing old ungracefully

Why the baby boomer generation is clinging to its youth.

James Harkin

Topics Politics

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How old is old? What it means to grow old depends on context and the society in which you live. But it also depends on where you are standing, on how old you are. A demographic blip of British babies born between 1945 and 1965, its numbers swollen by a surge of postwar optimism, is currently passing the turnstile into old age. It doesn’t like what it sees.

As co-author of a new report entitled Eternal Youths, I interviewed a number of baby boomers, who showed a peculiar reluctance to engage with the realities of being older. To those that we interviewed, the idea of being old suggested uselessness and decrepitude as well as the guilt of being a burden. Some were keen to voice their frustration at hysterical media and political coverage of the so-called ‘demographic time-bomb’. Others feared that they might end up marginalised and thrown on the scrapheap in state-enforced retirement.

But there was also another, more troubling reason why our baby boomers feared old age. Many were simply terrified by the irreversible physiological changes that accompany old age. It is already widely accepted that many baby boomers are prepared to pay through the nose to delay the visible signs of ageing, and that pharmaceutical and cosmetics manufacturers stand to prosper as a result. Cosmetic surgery, for example, is now on the brink of social acceptability in Britain.

But cosmetic surgery is only the most visible sign that baby boomers are determined not to adapt to old age. Many younger baby boomers are refusing to pass on the baton of youth culture to their children, believing that since they invented youth culture it remains rightfully theirs. In the course of the past decade, youth culture and popular culture have expanded their boundaries – and now increasingly encompass people in their forties. In return, the content of much popular culture – the slew of nostalgia programming and nostalgia advertising, for example – is beginning to reflect the interests of the middle-aged.

As the centre of gravity shifts further in the direction of middle age in the next 10 years, we can expect a good deal of jostling for position between baby boomers and their children over who owns youth culture.

British baby boomers are not alone in refusing to let go of their youth. In North America, where the idea of the baby boomer was invented, middle-aged people are using their huge financial clout to influence the direction taken by youth culture. Some major US youth brands have recently turned their back on risqué or overtly sexual advertising campaigns for fear of offending their more modest middle-aged consumers. The furore that greeted the baring of Janet Jackson’s breast at the 2004 Superbowl, for example, was linked by American commentators to the continued weight exerted by baby boomers on popular culture.

In ancient times and the medieval era, drinking from the fountain of youth was the stuff of folklore and mythology. With the arrival of the age of enlightenment, the quest for immortality was overtaken by the practical science of longevity, one capable of increasing our life expectancy through vast investments in science, technology, medicine and modern infrastructure. But the contemporary quest for eternal youth has little to do with a desire for a greater life expectancy. The baby boomers that we interviewed were not really interested in recipes for longevity. What counted for them was not increased life expectancy but quality of life. As soon as their quality of life diminished, most would be more than happy to pull the plug.

Traditional religion fortified us in the march towards old age and death by telling us a story about the afterlife. The politics of left and right were united in holding out the hope of unlimited progress measured by regular increases in life expectancy. But the withering of traditional religion and the demise of the politics of left and right have left us casting around for new gods.

The baby boomers have always been seen as a deeply idealistic generation. Now it seems that much of the creative energy that they put into politics and religion has been sublimated into working on their bodies. The same baby boomers who are hostile to genetic modification of the food that they eat to improve agricultural productivity, for example, become highly enthusiastic about gene-based treatments that purport to slow the ageing process. Worshipping at the temple of their bodies satisfies this generation’s need for something to believe in. Those who rehearse the rituals of youth culture or who suffer under the cosmetic surgeon’s knife are the new devout.

The problem is that old age is still an inevitable physiological process, which cannot be postponed indefinitely. If baby boomers are to be at ease with themselves as they enter their third age, they need to fortify themselves with a story about the benefits of ageing. It is a troubling paradox of our ageing society that many of us seem so obsessed with the Sisyphean task of warding off the omens of old age. In France, the horror of ageing among baby boomers is such that French gerontologists from the highly respected Fondation Nationale de Gerontologie have opted to skip a generation and work with children to change society’s bleak perception of the ageing process.

But government-sponsored ‘awareness campaigns’ are blunt instruments with which to combat our fear of ageing. We would do much better if, as a society, we could tell ourselves a contemporary story about the value of growing older: the greater wisdom, finesse, and accumulated experience that ageing can bring. The alternative is to be dragged kicking and screaming into an old age for which we are not cut out.

James Harkin is the co-author (with Julia Huber) of Eternal Youths, published by Demos, 2004.

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Topics Politics

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