A Point of View: Should the baby boomers leave the stage?

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood

As the baby boomers reach pensionable age, Will Self wonders if the older generation should stop trying to define what it means to be young.

When I was a child, people still spoke of the Biblical "three-score and ten" as a perfectly acceptable lifespan, and once they had retired, usually in their mid-60s, they thought of themselves as valetudinarians. But now nobody's in a hurry to say goodbye.

I think that by the time I reached adulthood there was a general consciousness, at least in the West, that those who were affluent enough to have access to proper healthcare and commensurate amenities could anticipate four-score and more.

Now, my own children speak without a trace of awe of their expectation of being centenarians. This is entirely reasonable - on current estimates perhaps as many as 30% of those under the age of 25 will live to be 100. Doubtless, whoever's on the throne by then will long since have abandoned the practice of marking such longevity with personalised telegrams, in favour of mass emailing.

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Will Self
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on BBC Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Will Self is a novelist and journalist

Yet the existence in Britain of a profoundly ageing population is commented on, if at all, only in the context of the usual metrics. We are invited to consider the cost of medical and social benefits and the belated transfer of capital assets to the young.

All those extra years - millions of them, in fact - are conceived of not in experiential, let alone spiritual terms, but as entirely subsumable to the same calibration of time and money that dominates our working lives. It's as if the time-and-motion man were to keep step with us, all the way from the factory floor and the office unto the grave.

I've noticed a new section in chain chemists over the past few years - shelves (and often entire aisles) labelled "assisted living", a euphemism for the condition of dependency that many elderly find themselves in, that carries with it an implicit remonstrance: "See! You aren't economically productive anymore, so we have to assist you to live."

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I often envision the baby boomer generation as a giant and warty toad squatting on the youth of our society”

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A lot of stress is also placed on the word "dignity" which is construed as a sort of genteel, and therefore age-appropriate, equivalent to that material desideratum "quality", the implication being that so long as the incontinent old are assisted with their dignity, they have received all they can reasonably expect.

At any rate, this is how the view looks on the verge of winter. Having turned 50 a couple of years ago I think of myself as properly Janus-faced - staring in both directions down the time tunnel - and while I too have all the common anxieties of the ageing (please don't remove me from my home and put me somewhere that's one in name only).

I also think it behoves us to be a little more objective about this unprecedented state of affairs, and also to have some sympathy for the young that goes beyond merely financial considerations.

"Boomer express" train promoting Alzheimer's awareness among baby boomers

In my darker moments - of which there are quite a few - I often envision the baby boomer generation as a giant and warty toad squatting on the youth of our society. It's often said that the pace of technological change in the last quarter century has been rapid, and has accelerated still more since the inception of the worldwide web.

But I invite you to consider this - were the demographics of our population still the same as they were in the 1960s, when the majority were young, that pace would have been a great deal faster. To take perhaps the most culturally, socially, economically and psychologically radical transformation - the shift from print and film-based broadcast media to bi-directional digital ones - this has been incepted and largely managed not by the young but by the old.

The end of skeuomorphism?

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"Steve Jobs... championed a style of design in which digital elements resembled real world objects that anyone could recognise.

"Now, however, all that is set to change. Skeuomorphism has fallen out of favour in recent years, and is almost regarded as a dirty word by many in the design community."

Steve Jobs is dead, Bill Gates is in his 50s, the social media entrepreneurs may be younger, but the frameworks within which they operate are established for them by their elders.

The Apple Macintosh operating system has only recently begun to shift away from an interface based on those symbols known as skeuomorphs, that are redolent of redundant technologies. The applications on iPads and phones have been launched by touching images of film cameras, analogue telephones, paper notebooks and envelopes - all of which were designed to make the technology comfortable to use for those of us who grew up with such things. Now Apple is abandoning its skeuomorphs - but not in response to Western demand, but in order to access the vast and youthful markets of the emergent Eastern and Southern economies.

But in the wider culture as well we can see myriad examples of this senescent suzerainty. I look back now on the so-called 50s revival of the 1970s, when pop groups began to appear on Top of the Pops dressed in teddy boy drape jackets and brothel creepers, as the beginning of the end of a youth culture capable of scaling the commanding heights.

The manufacture of almost instantaneous nostalgia by the commodifying of youthful styles and modes is both an economic and a psychological necessity for the generation that hoped it would die before it got old, but which, having obdurately survived, wishes not to grow old at all. Now the poor young exist in a sort of cultural jus made from many such reduced decadences, while those of us born between 1945 and 1961 keep on turning up the heat. No youth cultural movement since the punks of the late 1970s has had the slightest influence on mainstream culture, and the so-called hipsters of today owe their very name to the avant-gardists of their grandparents' generation.

Seven ages of the Magazine

old person's hands

All of this is, of course, only set to continue, and in all likelihood become more pronounced. As our own children get older, the median age of the society can only increase. Taking my 15-year-old son to the Reading rock festival this year, I was shocked and saddened by the spectacle of thousands of teenagers who had shelled out their money - or, more likely their parents' - to be entertained by bands of hard-rocking, goatee-flaunting and extravagantly tattooed men in their 40s.

When, aged 16, I went to see Bob Dylan play, I considered myself to be demonstrating a considerable catholicity of taste in embracing the work of such a has-been. At the time Dylan would've been 38, but more significantly, he's still performing to this day.

It is in this determination to hang on to cultural, not financial, capital with a steely grip that the older generation displays its true mettle. Largely untested by the existential threat of warfare, and from the safety of our comfortable lifestyles, we train our fire in a rearguard action against the young, insisting that they continue to invest in our obsolete cultural forms even as we shamelessly colonise their new ones and render them thereby almost instantly passe.

And while we do this (with a bleary eye on the assisted living to come) we lecture the young on the decline of the extended family, and the absence of respect accorded to the old. But, to employ a once-juvenescent idiom, we should get real. The demographics of those societies that cosseted their old folk in the home were radically different again. They may have listened attentively to the wisdom of their elders in the old days, but there were hardly any of those elders to prate on, while at best they stuck around for a few years of prating.

90th birthday cards 90th birthday cards for the Duke of Edinburgh

Now there are so many nonagenarians that you often see 90th birthday cards for sale in newsagents, and the only way that we can care for them - given the ceaseless pressure on those of us of working age to be economically productive - is by outsourcing the job to care workers who come from societies with a less top-heavy demographic profile.

Where will it all end? I suspect badly.

A cynic might even see the preponderance of age-related illnesses that the young are beginning to exhibit - obesity, hypotension and diabetes - as plagues inflicted on them by the physical constraints imposed by an ageing society. I am such a cynic. We would do well, I think, not to lambast the young for lying around all day fiddling with their electronic devices and snacking, because after all, this too is only another form of assisted living.

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Here is a selection of your comments

I have this sad potential vision of a few generations of kids with all their power-less electronic toys and dirty dishes and laundry piled around them, starving hungry and needing electricity for everything to work, when all the adults who used to actually *do* something (run the power stations, maintain the power lines, make and supply parts, do all the laundry and shopping, feed the kids and everybody else) are filling the 'care homes' and waiting for somebody of a younger generation to show up and actually care for them. If the kids got up off the sofa and had their daily 20-minute brisk walk, they would be fit enough to look after us.

Adam B, Frimley, Surrey

'No youth cultural movement since the punks of the late 1970s has had the slightest influence on mainstream culture'. Showing your age and possibly some prejudice here - hip hop has had a widespread influence on many aspects of art, culture and language.

Andrew Chaplin, London

The most comforting thought is that one day this writer may be reading an article suggesting that his generation step aside to make way for the next generation. Then he can write an article deploring the inability of the young to understand the value of experience.

Andrew Prescott, Hillsborough, NC, USA

My Granparents lived to 98 and 99 but my dad died at 81 and mum at 85. I put my dad's death down to exposure to radiation in WWII as he died of a form of blood cancer and my mum to smoking so they died more prematurely than their parents. If they had lived they would be 94 and 92 in 2013.

Angela Harding, Warborough

I've heard it often, 'Old people, move over to give room to the young', as if it's a responsibility. It's not, old people have no obligation to resign themselves. The Rolling Stones have become the mocked example of being too old to rock 'n roll. But they're not doing gigs for the money obviously, they're doing it for fun. Why should old people stop having fun just to give the young more space? There's plenty of room for everyone, metaphorically speaking.

Stephen Solar, Manchester, England

It's becoming a recent trend to bash the boomers, some sort of conspiracy is afoot as this trend gathers pace pushed by the media and government who only see us as liability drawing moneys from the state which no doubt could be better spent on their pet projects. I grew up in a small town near Wigan, the education would today be described as basic. Most winters the primitive heating system failed, resulting in us all including the teachers to sit in class with our pullovers, jackets and hats on, but that was accepted, we didn't bleat about it we just did it. When I left school I became an apprentice engineer in the coal mining industry, paid £5.20 per week. After 4 years training we graduated as fully fledged engineers, and our pay increased to a little over £18 per week that included danger money for working on the coal face, a wage regarded as well paid for the short life most miners enjoyed. However with house prices in the region of £4,500 and an inquisition to sit through to get a mortgage life was challenging if you intended to buy a house and only a house - no car, holidays abroad, new clothes, weekly takeaways and wine. We only read about such luxuries. We could never have contemplated all today's essentials - mobiles, laptops, huge TV sets, membership of the gym or golf club, jetting off to distant part at the drop of a hat, it makes me weep to see how impoverished the younger generation really is. So it's little wonder we would like to keep our investments a bit longer before compulsory euthanasia is brought in. We did change our world, so it's up to the whingeing youth to get off their backsides and capture the moment for themselves and fashion it as they would like. We were not given anything, no privileged trajectory was presented to me, so we've all a common starting point zero. Do not look for some sort of asset stripping from a generation who earned what we now have through our honest endeavours.

Paul Heyes, Costa del Sol, Spain

The boomers grew up at a time of profound change. It was adapt or die and the changes kept on coming. We embrace change and actively want to be a part it. That defines us and separates us from those born later. They will have to wait until we fade away ;)

Allen Segal, Chicago, USA

Owning a family business it has been easy to slowly transfer ownership to my son and daughter. Scaling back my lifestyle is also no burden, as I have all my toys - bought and paid for during my working years. And my tiny ocean front home is supported by my family business. I am the most fortunate of women - enjoying stellar health and a lust for learning, the only thing I don't know how to prepare for is the "assisted" living part. We need some sort of elephant's graveyard that the old and infirm can head toward as we begin slipping. Personally, I would prefer to engage in high risk activities and volunteerism before the light begins to flicker. Thank you for a most provocative read in a good while. We paid our dues, taxes, children, grandchildren and far from taking up slippers and pipes, want to enjoy what is left of our lives. If the up and coming replacements are absorbed by our culture, so be it.

Barry Twyman, Montpellier, France

There is no mention of why these aging personalities are still in demand by the young and not so young. Jim Morrison of The Doors is still in demand by university students even though he is dead. How could we stop that? And why would we try? The truth is that certain types of music and art are perceived as being of interest by following generations. Hopefully it is the best stuff and it often is. Generation after generation listen to Mozart and Pink Floyd.

Dan, Accra, Ghana

Other than mentioning that it was the my generation (the Boomers) who actually built the stage, it comes down to a matter of relevance, doesn't it? How many twenty-something performers of the current generation are going to be relevant 50 years on? Not many, I'd think. However, it's not inconceivable that people will be listening to Beatles and Stones many years from now. After all, Mozart's dead and gone these many years, but his music continues to be admired and played.

Darryl Varner, USA

Interesting assumptions you make here: Not just that each generation needs its place in the economic sun -- a concern of most, given not only elders' staying power, but also the world economy. But also that culture must also turn over rapidly. Has it not occurred to you that many of the most insoluble problems facing everyday people result from the ahistorical rate of cultural change which has occurred in the past 200 years? And finally that cultural turnover is supposed to be a clean sweep. It's not enough to have entire new means of communicating; the style of icons MUST be replaced. Maybe you are right, but I would need some convincing. I write this as I listen to Mozart on Android. I live in a two hundred year old home with newly installed modern siding. To me, it seems normal to mix the avant garde with the established with the classic, and I am not sure that recent generations would be better off doing otherwise. The constant rehashing of content on a 20 year cycle - Happy days and sock hops in the 70's on 331/3 rpm LPs, Beatles in the eighties on cassette, re-mastered copies of just about anything on CD etc. is the failure through lack of motivation of our economy (for we do not really live in a society so much as an economy) to produce content when it can re-hash something for a new generation by simply portraying it as new because of a new medium. Similarly, in film, the number of N. American re-releases of successful European film releases fits this pattern.

Derek, Canada

I was lucky enough to be born in 1946. I left school at 16 and by the time I was 24 had been working for 8 years. My children left university at 24 and then had their year out. I have enjoyed my retirement so far but I feel that they had theirs before they started work but as I am fit and well I am considering going back to work, and why not? I do tend to feel a bit of resentment at the way that our rulers seem to have to be young. And that a large proportion of our parliamentarians have no experience of life. What happened to the "benefits of experience". I seem to remember that something like most disasters have happened before. Our politicians and the press. (all mostly under 50) seem surprised by it all. Mr Self seems surprised by the fact that people like the music and entertainment of their youth. Why not when all that seems to have come since seems to be aimed at a segment of society that can understand "rap" or is basically a pale copy of what came before. And there are a few more of us. We are living longer and healthier and as such contributing more to society. The next Bill Gates doesn't seem to have come along yet. When he..or she..does and comes up with something different I'm sure Mr Self will say .."It wouldn't have happened in my day"

David S Dempsey, Sheffield, UK

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