The Long and Winding Road

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You're not getting older, you're getting better! A clever slogan to sell vats of hair dye a few seasons back, but does it stand up as social analysis?

We're certainly all getting older in the United States. In 1900, our median age was about 23 years - slightly older for males; slightly younger for females. A century later, our median age has risen to about 35 - although slightly younger for males, slightly older for females. Moreover, the proportion of those 65 and over has more than tripled since 1900, from 4.1 percent then to 12.7 percent now. The proportion of males to females has also shifted, though not as dramatically. In 1900, men outnumbered women slightly; in 2000, women outnumber men.

Clearly we're older. Are we better?

Assorted aging boomers, including author Theodore Roszak (most recently of America the Wise), came together at the Ghost Ranch Center in northern New Mexico a few months ago to meditate on some of these numbers, and it led them to some intriguing conclusions. As reported in a local newspaper account, these members of the generation that vowed it would never trust anyone over 30 broke into wild applause at the idea that, when over-50s are a majority of adults in the United States (sometime around 2050, according to U.S. Census projections), elders will no longer seem strange, no longer marginal. In fact, they'll be in charge. This, then, will lead to a shift in society's core values.

A society with a steadily aging population will become less competitive and more cooperative, less isolated and more friendly, less harsh and more compassionate, less materialistic and more spiritual, less gullible and more thoughtful. So proclaimed the participants at this "Harvest of the Sage," sponsored by Jubilados, a nonprofit group that hopes to develop an affordable, eco-friendly retirement community.

My stars. Even if we cut boomers the usual slack for their preposterously flattering self-portraits, we've got to wonder whether any of them read history. Wars, as Paul Fussell points out in his seminal book on World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, are always fought by young men, but begun and ended by elders. (Not because elders can't physically make war, but because young men are so malleable, he adds.) Maybe these sages-to-be really believe that twentysomethings were calling the shots as well as pulling the triggers at Tiananmen Square.

Then there's Japan, whose gerontocracy is not so much kinder and gentler as paralytic, implacably acting out the stereotype that says the older you get, the more unbending you are. Is it age or culture that brings this on? Here in the United States, the demographics say we're about to find out.

The conferees at Ghost Ranch said they expect that as a numerical majority, the new oldsters will no longer seem strange. Even to themselves? Maybe, but your shares in the cosmetic surgery co-op are probably still a good investment.

A generation less competitive and more cooperative? Could be, but surely it's vulgar sentimentality to think that age alone (or, for that matter, gender) automatically confers a cooperative spirit. Note also the observation that when the over-50s are a majority, they can look forward to being in charge. Who's in charge right now, pray? More important, who's taking responsibility? Will this generation ever grow up?

Less isolated and more friendly? This group, like the rest of us, must deal with a U.S. transportation system built on the assumption that nobody under 16 or over 70 has any business going anywhere, and anyway, our separate households are rapidly growing in numbers, not declining. It's a sadder and larger truth that prickly and overbearing young persons don't miraculously grow into uncomplaining and amiable elders, except in the novels of Charles Dickens (and seldom there).

Less harsh and more compassionate? Would anyone describe our congressional representatives - a fairly long-in-the-tooth bunch - as less strident and more caring than the population at large?

Less materialistic and more spiritual? As a society perhaps some of us are turning away from materialism and toward a renewal of faith, but why credit aging alone? A stirring spirituality could be a society-wide recoil from decades of wasteful, toxic, and ultimately disappointing things - a recoil shared not only by boomers but by other generations, earlier and later, who've enjoyed all that bounty yet wondered where the satisfactions really lay.

So it goes, down the list of shifting core values put forth by the sages at Ghost Ranch.

Let me suggest another possibility. As our life expectancies increase, our lives scale. A 23-year-old in 1900 could expect roughly 25 additional years of life in which to make a mark, rear a family, perhaps make the world a little better, come to terms with death. A 23-year-old in 2000, however, can assume that well more than 50 years stretch ahead, at least statistically. Plenty of time to experiment and prolong adolescence: to day-trade, toss rubber frogs across the office, build a Web site - and if they don't come, build another.

But what now preoccupies an American in his or her mid-30s probably parallels the preoccupations of those in their early 20s a hundred years ago - the eternal human preoccupations upon arrival at life's midpoint, given the luxury of peace to ponder.

We can scale this all along the line. People in their 50s right now aren't harvesting a lifetime's toil and getting ready to lay down their burden; they're looking for the next challenge. They figure they have a quarter-century at least to meet it - as it happens, the same period of time median-agers 100 years ago could look forward to living. If, by some bioengineering miracle, telemerase research suddenly offered us 200-year lifespans, we'd have the decidedly mixed blessing of watching centenarians finally decide to settle down and get serious. Imagine 60-year-old adolescents. (No, don't.)

Some other obvious differences over the past 100 years come to mind. This is the first generation of American elders to enjoy excellent lifelong nutrition, to pump iron regularly (having both the time and leisure), and to be the beneficiaries of new medicine. It's likely to stay healthier and work longer than earlier generations, easing threats to Social Security and Medicare, and giving some financial breathing room to laboring Gen Xers and Ys.

But less gullible and more thoughtful? Not much sign of it at the Ghost Ranch gathering. Never mind. Most of them have at least another quarter-century to get it right.

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