Not so Forever Young

By Will Randolph

A great number of baby boomers resist anything that smacks of aging because boomers don’t want to think of themselves as being old. One of my friends went to his 1975 high school class reunion recently. He marveled that most of his friends were unrecognizable because they looked so old. He mentioned women who had put on weight and men who had lost their hair. He said he had never seen so many wrinkles, double chins, and hearing aids. I inquired, “Well how about you? Do you think you looked old to them?” “No,” he said, “they knew who I was, and everyone said I had not changed a bit.” This was coming from a friend who is balding, admittedly has put on weight, has a few wrinkles, and has not been in a gym in years.

So why does my friend see the changes in everyone but himself? He, like so many other boomers, doesn’t want to think of himself as getting old.

Marketing and advertising experts know that if they want to target boomers, then they should not actually show boomers in their ads. Effective promotions for boomers are those where the actors are in their early forties.

Why do boomers tend to think of themselves as forever young? Many sociologists believe that boomers have a negative image of aging. Being old is threatening because for many boomers it represents their parents -- whom they battled with during their youthful years and when they came of age as young adults. Boomers made a point to be different from their parents. By the time boomers settled into middle age, their parents were well in their retirement years and had begun to decline physically. At the same time, boomers were experiencing similar battles with their children that they had held with their parents. To their horror, boomers realized “they were becoming their parents.”

Aging however is relentless. Sooner or later, it catches up with everyone. So at what point do boomers recognize their true age? One measure of old age used to be retirement. But roughly 10, 000 boomers have been retiring every day since January 1, 2011, the day when the first wave of boomers became old enough to retire with full benefits at age 65. Another measure of old age used to be becoming grandparents; however, some boomers became grandparents well before age 50. For still others, old age represents the time when a person begins to break down physically or mentally, lose abilities, and experience a lifestyle change. Current medical technology, however, enables us to replace aging knees and hips. Loss of activity is no longer a measure of aging because many folks older than boomers continue to live very active lives.

What will it take for us boomers to begin to see ourselves for our own age? When will we stop pretending we are younger than we actually are and embrace who we are becoming? When I was a teenager, I would laugh at older people who tried to pretend they were younger by wearing the current styles, listened to the music of those who were half their age, and tried to hang out with young adults. I felt like saying to them: “Please grow up and act your age!” Maybe someone should say this to many of us boomers!

We need a new model of what being old looks like -- someone to guide us into old age by embracing it fully and showing us how it can be a valuable and productive time of life.

When we were younger, music was the great teacher of style and way of life. How many of us copied the long hair of the bands we listened to? Many of us sang along with the songs of protest with our bands. We dressed in apparel we copied from the stage clothes of our rock idols. It is interesting that some of these same bands are now even older than the boomers who bought their records.

Late next month, Mick Jagger, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones turned 72. We boomers grew up with his music and still appreciate him. What if he began to write about what it is like to be 70 years old? What if instead of singing his old music, he begin to write about losing his friends, about accepting limitations, and about how he now is beginning to try to make sense of his legacy and life? Would we boomers begin to see aging as something with which we can relate? If the Rolling Stones presented aging as something of a new adventure to embrace instead of trying to avoid looking, acting, and seeming old, then my bet is that boomers would begin to look upon aging differently. Boomers need a role model to learn how to be old.

I will make a prediction: Sooner or later boomers will discover that aging is not the end of the world. Like everything else that boomers have touched over the years, boomers will change the paradigm and begin to allow themselves to age. Instead of pretending to be young again, boomers may pretend to be older than they are again. Already, I think I see this happening. One of the trending styles in the fashion industry is the boomer models with long gray hair (both women and men). Some people younger than boomers are having their hair dyed gray to look older! Eventually boomers will drop the pretense of being young in favor of looking and acting our age. people younger than boomers are having their hair dyed gray to look older! Eventually boomers will drop the pretense of being young in favor of looking and acting our age.