Well, first of all, this is a book so well written that one’s faith in American non-fiction letters is almost restored in one go.
Essentially, this is indeed a cultural history of the Baby Boomers and of how they have responded to the journey from swinging and hip to creaky and, well, probably needing a hip replacement. Old Father Time, the bastard, just had to catch up with the luckiest ever generation and, whatever pains he brought, he was a considerably better deal than the Grim Reaper. LRS shows how aging developed its own politics, its own demand for more sensitive responses from the rest of society and, of course, its own highly original package of anxieties. Just what happened to America when the once and future post-War kids dropped out of middle-age with no clear plan to go anywhere, to stop enjoying life or to let retirement devour them? Of course, there was another more troubled variant on this meta-narrative. Was aging something that could be defeated or seriously detained or at least heavily disguised? Science and commerce were thus invited to service new possibilities and to pave longevity with optimism. Bodily decrepitude was not inevitable. Surely?
LRS reviews how aging started its modern life as something of a socio-economic disaster in the making. How was the American state going to cope with what used to be called the Demographic Timebomb, the bad bad thing that would be detonated by the cumulative life-extension of millions of inevitably very needy citizens who could themselves no longer be market-productive or ultimately care for themselves. Alongside this imminent social welfare disaster, older people began to get really badly dissed and a new word, with an instantly recognisable heritage, swelled into the political vernacular : agism.
For good or ill and correctly or mistakenly, a new 20th/21st century victimhood was born.
Meanwhile, as the decades piled high on one another, it was not entirely clear whether aging was just a sad fact-of-life or an engineering glitch that would soon be fixed with a spot of bio-gerontological ingenuity. Maybe we could all extend our health as well as our life by eating/drinking in a more informed and therefore more moderate way while taking lots of vigorous exercise – a notion that was down with the Boomers ever since Jane Fonda wrapped her first video in lycra. Maybe we could all maintain a presence in the courtship-and-sex market via plastic surgery (the industry that boomed from nowhere) or simply via the avalanche of anti-aging cosmetic agents that filled the parlours and the supermarket shelves alike. Or maybe we could all live to 100+ or even, thanks to a science that could put people onto the moon and latterly a small but fabulously powerful computer into everyone’s hand, not die at all.
The dreams, the cranks, the exaggerations, the confusions, the experiments, the false prophets, the false starts, the chaotic hopes for eternal youth… are all really well illuminated into a history here by LSR. Aging had become the petri-dish de nos jours. For the whole social order craved, so it seemed, an inoculation against death. Along the way, growing old quickly became a cafeteria of options and no longer a swooshing water-slide into the grave. It was all too literally a New Age.
Like many commentators in this subject area, LRS deplores what he sees as the dominant cult of youth, something which is still disfiguring American society. He thinks that one’s older years can be – and should be seen as – a time of serenity and wise contentedness. They should not go chasing how things used to be. For there is no good version of anti-aging to be had or bought; indeed it is anti-human to think that there might be. Enjoy life, listen to the best health advice and love your wrinkles.
This is where I personally part company with the analysis. It’s misguided to place the demographic segments in the setting of a contest for hegemony. It’s not that youth is unfairly preferred and the oldies suffer accordingly. There is, moreover, most certainly a cult of talent, of beauty, of exceptionalism. Jennifer Lawrence is as fantastic on the silver screen as Judi Dench and vice versa. Stella McCartney started dressing supermodels when she was 25; at the same time Karl Lagerfeld was in his 60s and also pumping out catwalk hits. It’s not that older people are automatically devalued in the social or cultural standings but it is true that, in ways that were actuarially denied them before, they have to compete hard for success with all the other ages and individuals.
Of course, there is going to be a reluctance across established businesses to promote the over-55s, employ seventy-somethings or lend money to first-time gray entrepreneurs. There are so many industries and professions which require human churn in order to prosper, to refresh from within, to look and sound vibrant to the world outside. Schools need young idealistic teachers unstained by all the cyclical disappointments of the profession. Advertising and PR agencies, for their part, want noisy ambitious thrusters who have mad ideas to offer but no bad ones to recycle. Life, love, literature…. they all like journeys, physical and spiritual. Third Agers just have to re-invent themselves along these dimensions. No point in insisting that there is too much discrimination in the air and that the times are, whatever show they put on, simply against gray heads.
A final quibble. Aging in America could have done with making a much bigger nod to the science of genetic re-setting that now comes with so much scholarship and so many sets of claims. Sharon Moalem, Josh Mitteldorf, Elizabeth Blackburn, et al… are people making very potent arguments about how individuals can free themselves from much of both their genetic and environmental hinterlands. Of course, why we all grow old and wither may remain a mystery and an unsolvable one forever. But there is no frontier being rolled back so vigorously now; highly personalized advice, relating to one’s own body chemistry, is replacing the soon-to-be staid : we-should-all-eat-less meat and we-should-all-walk-hard-every day. That is not going to be enough any more.
I myself do not really believe that in any Rousseau-esque way early versions of the American Dream held elder citizens in higher esteem than was the case under Jack Kennedy all the way through to Donald Trump. Nor do I particularly believe that too much nervy moral discourse needs to inhabit each individual aging course : go gently / don’t go gently – it’s up to you. Aging is now an entrepreneurship more than it is a victimhood.But, that said, this is just about the best book on aging’s new and shifting frontiers that I have read in a while. It deserves a substantial audience.