Boomers rewrite aging
By MARGO HAMMOND
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
Old age isn't what it used to be -- or at least some of us are sure hoping it isn't. Some of us, in fact, apparently are planning to skip it entirely.
"This generation of ours refuses to believe it's getting older," says Betsy Carter, the editor-in-chief of My Generation, the new magazine from AARP that's aimed at 50 to 55-year-olds and debuts this month. Carter is talking, of course, about the baby boom generation, those 76-million souls born during the post-war period between 1946 and 1964. The first of the baby boomers turn 55 this year, a group that includes both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Baby boomers, say demographers, are like a pig moving through a python, radically transforming every stage of life as they go through it. Now, as baby boomers are poised to transform old age, many of them are doing what might be expected of the most self-absorbed group in history: They are denying that it even exists.
Traditionally, age 50 marked the end of middle age, but for us baby boomers, the Big 5-0 has been an excuse to break out the champagne, give each other Jimmy Buffett's A Pirate Looks at Fifty (Ballantine, $14) or Dave Barry Turns 50 (Ballantine, $12.95) and celebrate how young we feel (and look). Insisting that the second half of our lives will somehow be different than our parents' aging process, we don't even think of ourselves as being seniors yet but rather middlescents. "As they reluctantly migrate out of youth, boomers have already begun to engineer a new and vastly extended middle period of life: middlescence," says Ken Dychtwald in Age Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled By the New Old (Putnam, $13.95).
As adolescents and young adults, we fueled the economy by drinking 55 percent of all soft drinks, gulping down vast quantities of Big Macs and turning Levi Straus and its blue jeans into the world's largest clothing manufacturer. As middlescents, we are at it again, building up retirement portfolios, gobbling up fat-free foods and turning cosmetic surgery into a booming business.
Also mushrooming are books that indulge our quest for eternal youth (or at least longevity). Last month Zorba Paster, a doctor who has a call-in radio program on National Public Radio, published The Longevity Code: Your Personal Prescription for a Longer, Sweeter Life (Clarkson Potter, $25), outlining habits you can adopt to extend your life. This fall Deepak Chopra, that New Age guru who even has suggested that death can be avoided altogether, will publish Grow Younger, Live Longer: Ten Steps to Reverse Aging (due out from Harmony Books in October).
Crowding our bookshelves are volumes assuring us that our health, careers and marriages not only don't have to decline, they can actually improve with age. We have an endless appetite, for example, for books promising a healthy sex life after 50. Last year there was Zenith Henkin Gross' Seasons of the Heart: Men and Women Talk About Love, Sex, and Romance after 60 (New World Library, $14.95) and All Night Long: How to Make Love to a Man over 50 by Barbara Keesling (HarperCollins, $23). This year already we have John Amodeo's The Authentic Heart: An Eightfold Path to Midlife Love (John Wiley, $15.95) and Making Love the Way We Used to . . . or Better: Secrets to Satisfying Midlife Sexuality by Allan M. Altman and Laurie Ashner (Contemporary Books, $24.95).
"Sexuality at midlife can be as good or even better than it was when you were younger," touts the book jacket of Making Love the Way We Used to . . . or Better. "Why settle for a less than satisfying sex life at any age?"
Also ubiquitous are books spewing out financial and retirement advice to the baby boomer crowd. Most urge boomers to save, a hard sell for a group whose strong suit has never been delayed gratification (According to Age Power, one-third of boomers have "virtually no savings, no investments, no pensions, and, in all likelihood will receive no inheritance windfall.") In You're Fifty -- Now What: Investing for the Second Half of Your Life (Crown, $24), Charles Schwab, who lends his name to the country's largest discount brokerage company and the No. 1 online broker, not surprisingly and perhaps a bit self-servingly urges boomers to invest in index funds. He also wisely warns boomers that their post-retirement income needs will most likely be higher than those of their more frugal parents (instead of the conventional 70 percent of one's income, he suggests 80 and in some cases even 100 percent.) Boomers, after all, have never been ones to cut back on spending.
All the jogging and money in the world won't save boomers, however, from the real crisis of aging: the what's-it-all-about question. Even here though, as the pig in the python passes the middle-age mark, boomers are determine to rewrite the script. Forget the red convertible and trophy wife. Boomers are coming up with far more intriguing ways to deal with their midlife crises and face down the abyss.
To relieve his midlife angst, Bill Henderson -- one of the original founders of the Lead Pencil Club -- did something constructive: He built himself a tower in Maine and wrote about it in Tower: Faith, Vertigo, and Amateur Construction (Farrar Straus Giroux, $23). Jon Katz, a father, husband and journalist who was turning 50, ran to the mountains, holing himself up in a dilapidated cabin in upstate New York with only his two dogs and Thomas Merton's writings as companions. "Sometimes you go away so that you can come home or find out what home really means," he concludes in Running to the Mountain: A Midlife Adventure (Broadway Books, $12).
At 50 journalist Joan Anderson, with her sons grown and her marriage floundering, took off a year and retreated to a family cottage on Cape Cod. Her book, which is currently inching up the New York Times paperback books bestseller list, is called A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman (Broadway Books, $12.95). At age 48, Cheryl Jarvis took a three-month sabbatical from her marriage and family. She writes about her experience and those of other women who did the same in The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey That Brings You Home (Perseus Publishing, $24). After hiking the Appalachian Trail, driving cross-country, teaching overseas or joining an archaeological dig, they all return home to husbands and family.
"The most important thing I learned by leaving was that it wasn't marriage that held me back," writes Jarvis. "All the barriers to the life I wanted were within myself. And when I realized that, I fell in love with my husband all over again."
Upbeat, healthier and more physically active than their parents, most boomers clearly are not planning to take this aging process lying down. As usual, boomers are going to grab the gusto right to the finish line. But will our age denial in the end prove disastrous to the generations that follows us? Our country's resources, after all, are finite and if we boomers hog (there's that pig in the python again) a disproportional amount in our advancing years, won't that mean mean less for the Gen-Xers and other generations behind us? As Dychtwald points out, our generation wants to deny we are growing older, but we also want to receive our old age benefits at age 65. Can boomers have it both ways? Dychtwald says no.
". . . If, like silver-haired velociraptors, they use their size and influence to bully younger generations and gobble up all of the available resources, we will find ourselves in a Gerassic Park of our own making."
If, on the other hand, boomers take the opportunities presented to them by their new and improved version of old age and give back something to society in their twilight years, there is no telling what the largest generation of geezers in history could accomplish.
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