In 1969, historian Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture coined the term that defined a generation. His new book, The Making of an Elder Culture, explores the potential social sea change resulting from a gerontocracy in which most of Western society is over the age of 50.
Q: You make the provocative claim that baby boomers have a second chance to reshape history due to their demographic clout, even that their place in history could hinge more on their second act as “elders” than their first act as radicals.
A: Yes, the people leading the way toward a gerontocracy are the same people who were raising hell on the college campuses of the ’60s. This is a very special population because they had a special historical experience that acquainted them with the willingness to make big changes. These people are going to be older for a longer period of time than they were ever young and have much more political and financial clout than younger people.
Q: How will this shift in social consciousness begin to shake out?
A: Well, once again the demographic weight is going to force people to think differently, even if they start off with a very negative attitude—which is generally the attitude we have toward aging. But you’re going to have to put up with the fact that we now have a lot of 70-year-olds and 80-year-olds who are not like your grandparents or great-grandparents. They go on working, they’re professionals, they are active. These are not just parasites leaning on the rest of the society. I talk about experience being of great economic value, but we’ve never given it enough weight in our economic thought. And I speak as a historian—this is an unprecedented state of affairs, and so it’s new to people, they’ve never had to think about the demographics of their society in this way.
Q: You write that the free market and elder culture are not viewed as a compatible fit because elders are seen as a liability, not an asset. You propose new economic indicators.
A: We don’t have economic indicators that cope intelligently with the longevity revolution. Even economists will wake up to the fact that the best measure you have of any society’s well-being is what I call the NLE, the national life expectancy. There are societies, say like Russia today, where the national life expectancy is dropping. It doesn’t matter how productive they’re being, there’s something desperately wrong in a society like that.
Q: You predict the major impetus for change will come from a revolt of female caregivers looking after older disabled family members. You write one in four women in the U.S. currently looks after a family member over 50, sometimes for 10 to 20 years to the point they’re called upon to serve as professional nurses.
A: Yes, in the U.S. there are no significant provisions for long-term care outside of Medicare. And nobody foresaw, back in the ’60s, what it was going to lead to, which is a longer life expectancy and healthier elders. But when you get beyond what Medicare can provide, you get into an area where there are no significant ethically respectable provisions. So volunteerism falls back upon baby boomwomen going into their 50s: they’ve got parents on their hands who are in their 70s and their 80s. As I looked into the issue of aging around the world, I thought, “This is not sustainable.” This is the flashpoint that’s going to emerge within the next 10 years.
Q: You compare the coming dissent of these boomer women to historically significant revolts like storming the Bastille or the Boston Tea Party.
A: Yes, because it is so personal; it gets right down into people’s most private dreams and hopes of what their life might have been like if they didn’t have to become sort of amateurish full-time caregivers.
Q: But if these women are hidden how will the issue become politicized?
A: I think it will happen through various organizations, like the AARP [Amercian Association of Retired People] who will take up the cause. Then there will be politicians who say, “Listen, there are a lot of votes here.” I suspect this will be done by fits and starts, with a lot of right-wing opposition, but eventually we will get to something that’s better.
Q: You suggest aging boomers will also influence cultural norms, such as reframing the notion of the alpha male. In the book you give the example of how you felt embarrassed having to ask a a female flight attendant for help lifting a suitcase.
A: Yes, men have a very difficult time aging and giving up on certain stereotypes, like “I should be able to lift my own luggage.”
Q: You point out our model for masculinity is that of a young man’s masculinity.
A: That’s right. Betty Friedan once said it’s not just that we have a male model, we have a young male model.
Q: And it’s everywhere you look in popular culture. So how will that change?
A: I think men who have had men’s groups in the past mainly dealing with relations with women are probably going to have groups dealing with issues of aging in which they simply come clean about the fact that they’re getting older, they’re getting weaker. There comes a point where you just have to say, “Look, I’m not 40 years old anymore and I can’t do any number of things, and I shouldn’t expect it of myself. In fact, expecting it of myself is a prescription for deep unhappiness.” Men are going to have to own up to the fact that they are not supermen anymore.
Q: You devote a chapter to “the end of sex,” writing that sex will be replaced in a marriage by loyalty as the final stage of love. Yet this is the age of Viagra: maintaining potency into old age is a birthright. Isn’t that a conflict?
A: This is a deep problem, because it’s so embedded in our culture—the whole ethos of love and romance and, of course, the hypersexuality that’s been promoted in the marketplace. One of the liabilities of the ’60s, when there truly was a sexual revolution, was that sex came to be identified as the most important thing in life; it was associated with freedom and being anti-war—“Make love, not war”—so it had a lot of idealism attached to it. But what you come to realize is that sex isn’t going to sustain you through the whole of your life; there’s going to come a point when other things begin to matter more in any relationship. The standard Christian marriage ceremony tells you this. It does not talk about love and sex, it talks about “for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” because that’s realistic. I anticipate that as time goes on, with the help of therapists and people like Oprah, they’re going to begin talking about the fact that a couple in their 60s and 70s, while they may still have a sex life, are really much more involved in one another’s care and well-being medically and emotionally.
Q: Doesn’t this go back to your point about the perception of the alpha man?
A: Some people—and again it may be mainly men—have a very hard time adjusting to this because they feel that a relationship with a woman is basically sexual, and that they have to maintain performance indefinitely. I think this is a very serious psychological problem that they can’t work their way out of without some help.
Q: You also write about elders having to be delicensed from driving due to declining cognitive skills. Isn’t this going to be a huge hot-button topic given that the baby boom equates the car with freedom?
A: I think that’s true. My own driving abilities, as my wife tells me all the time, have become deeply compromised in many ways, and I do not enjoy driving. Boy, would I give up on driving tomorrow if I had an alternative. And I discovered, with a lot of my friends, that they don’t want to drive that much for reasons that have to do with eyesight and agility and coordination.
Q: You suggest that the Internet will allow the elderly to remain connected while stationary. Do you see other more ecologically sensitive solutions emerging?
A: Well, the number one item in every elder village being built across the country is transportation. That is not only the highest priority but it is the toughest one to solve. However, there are people who are trying to find ways to meet that need by providing efficient transportation—meaning cars—for people who don’t want to drive anymore. Now, this has not gelled yet into a pattern. I suspect that public transport and some kind of glorified taxi service are going to become much more important to an older population, especially as they move into more densely populated inner-city areas.
Q: You suggest one of the benefits of gerontocracy will be to teach that interdependency is a condition of life.
A: That’s right. Especially in your older years, that four-letter word—“help”—becomes so important, and you just have to recognize you cannot keep trying to live by an ethic of self-reliance. Boy, you can’t do that in your older years, it’s just an illusion.
Q: Could this have broader economic consequences?
A: I think so. In the United States—and to some degree in every Western society—the market economy has been pinned for generations to a social Darwinist ethic, the idea that people should take care of their own needs and they should be more self-reliant, and that the people who can do that, who are the great competitors, deserve to be the social leaders, etc. But as you age, that ethic just cannot meet your needs anymore and you begin to shift away from it toward something like an ethic of mutual aid. And this doesn’t happen because you come to be convinced of that by an ideologue on a soap box, it’s baked into your muscles and your bones and you just realize: “I need help in life and I always have, though I haven’t always recognized it.” That’s a moment of truth that people come to, especially when they have been through a medical crisis.
Q: You talk about medical crises as a tranformative experience, revelatory.
A: It was for me, and I’ve seen it happen with other people. That’s a key point in the book: people change through aging. This is one of the deepest forms of consciousness transformation we undergo. You begin to address certain questions of life very differently when you’re 60 than you ever did when you were 20. The reason we haven’t paid much attention in the past is because there weren’t so many old people around.
Q: You express considerable optimism about a demographic known for its narcissism. Where does that come from?
A: A certain amount of journalistic writing continues to identify the aging society as a disaster, as a train wreck. But what they’re overlooking is so many good aspects, the whole environmental aspect of aging is left out of account. I thought it’s time to write a book that does indeed sound optimistic. I don’t want to sound slap-happy: I’m not predicting as people get older they’re going to get better. Age can be wasted on the old! And I really don’t want to go on the record predicting that 70 million baby boomers are suddenly going to wake up enlightened. I don’t think it’s going to happen like that.