The 'greedy geezers' are coming of age
By Ellen Goodman
In retrospect, it was the perfect way to begin The Year The Baby Boomers Turned Sixty. After all, the audience for the Rolling Stones concert was divided roughly into two demographics:
One generation (mine) was awestruck that anyone our age could rock and roll for two straight hours without Advil or a stretcher. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" to you, too. The younger generation couldn't believe they were even at a rock concert by a 62-year-old. "Satisfaction" galore.
Now, in a tribute that's even more fitting to the times, the Stones are set to do the halftime gig at the Super Bowl tomorrow. Hold on to your remote: The Stones, whose players average age 62.5, will entertain for the NFL, whose players average age 26.4.
This choice was not without its little malfunctions. At first the misguided Super Bowl planners tried to exclude anyone over 45 from the corps of 2,000 dancing, cheering extras who take to the field for the extravaganza. It was too physically taxing, a poor NFL spokesman told a Detroit newspaper: "You have to attend rehearsal and be able to stand for long stretches of time." Hey, you, "Get Off Of My Cloud."
It wasn't long before the idea of barring people because they were too old and decrepit to cheer their gyrating, cranking elders struck the irony bone. Thus, Super Bowl XL is now officially the site of the first successful protest movement of the Aging Baby Boomers: for the right to rock 'n' roll.
Somewhere in here, there's a symbol waiting to get out. We are less than two months into the era of Aging Baby Boomers, an oxymoron if there ever was one. About 7,918 people turn 60 every day. This is a generation that spawned an industry of trend watchers and boomerologists.
Now the boomerology is focused or bifocused on the meaning of age itself. What will the boomers do to/for/about age? Are they going to be on the playing field or the sidelines?
We seem to be developing two distinct story lines about the boomers at 60. The generation is portrayed as either a crushing burden or a huge benefit.
On the one hand, we are told that the 78 million Americans coming of age are going to wreck Medicare, deep-six Social Security and eat their children's future. Along the way, they're going to produce a booming industry for Depends, Nexium and hip replacements.
On the other hand, we are told that boomers will be the most healthy, fit, long-living and independent elders ever. They're going to produce a booming industry for yoga, Pilates, triathlons and, OK, hip replacements.
On the job front, we're warned, too, that boomers aren't saving enough money and will have to scramble for menial jobs to supplement their income. But we're also warned that boomers will hang on to all the best jobs and tenure positions, clog the pipeline to the top and keep Gen X waiting like Prince Charles.
The boomers are coming! Start building nursing homes? The boomers are coming! Retrofit the Oval Office? One scenario envisions senior discounts at the golf course; the other sees them running for president at 80.
Meanwhile, lifestyle stories of this birthday party describe 60 as the new 40. And then promptly prescribe Botox, Viagra and extreme makeovers as party favors. The split-screen theme seems to be that it's great to be older as long as you look younger.
Thirty years ago, Gail Sheehy ended "Passages" with 50-year-olds. Now, she's back writing about "Sex and the Seasoned Woman" and promoting her book by posing in a black leather skirt and draped over a sofa. Is this what we mean by sexagenarian?
It's not surprising to find conflicting narratives following this generation from the 1960s into their 60s. In their youth, after all, boomers were characterized and caricatured as self-centered materialists or selfless agents of change. Now, they are alternately portrayed in surveys and screeds as greedy geezers who want to take it all and compassionate do-gooders who want to spend their late years changing the world.
The truth is that baby boomers have never had much more in common than a date book. The folks who turn 60 this year are as different as Bill Clinton and George Bush, Donald Trump and Cher. Even if boomers share a fascination with their aging process, aging itself may turn out to be as individualistic as a set of genes.
"You Can't Always Get What You Want." Those who were not Mick Jagger at 26 aren't going to be Mick Jagger at 62. Nevertheless, it would be refreshing if this generation, well beyond its own halftime, got together at long last to protest something more meaningful than equal access to a rock concert.