Magazine

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

  • 1 November 2013
  • From the section Magazine
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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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 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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