As I've written before, the Baby Boomers' experiences frame the discussion for the rest of us, and so the media is increasingly preoccupied with second acts and with aging well. For our achievement-oriented society, getting older and doing it well means, well, doing.
Like celebrities who gestate, success is equated with being perfect and fabulous. As all women who've just given birth are given the implicit message they should compete with a bikini-clad Giselle on the pages of Vogue, people drawing their first Social Security checks are comparing themselves with aging rock stars and the Dali Lama. I remember when Bill Clinton got elected and someone said, "The President of the United States is now older than Mick Jagger," and I thought it was a big deal. Now he's 75 and strutting around singing Satisfaction. Love him, but to extend the metaphor it's kind of like looking at a pregnant woman at forty weeks wearing leggings and a sports bra. The Victorians may have had a bunch of stuff wrong, but confinement really wasn't such a bad idea for all concerned. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Jagger and Clinton sat together a World Cup game or two, and as you can see from the shot above, Grandpa Mick can still drop an F-Bomb if provoked.)
Notions about getting older in an admirable way are still a reflection of the youth culture. Part of it is that we all hang onto our ideas of our own selves as perpetually young, even as the mirror tells us otherwise. But a huge part of the public discourse comes from two very American ideas: Puritanism and action.
In order to live a century (and let's face it, those post-war overachievers won't be satisfied with a pedestrian seven or eight decades, by God) all anyone, the sub-text tells us, we need to live properly. Organic food, exercise and more exercise, no booze or cigarettes, no ice cream, no bacon, no steak--it's just a matter of willpower and clean living to get us there. But then, we'll have missed the fun and all of our eating and drinking buddies will have died off, so no one will be there to see us win the last man standing contest.
This related to the deeply Puritanincal notion idea that people get what they deserve. What goes around, comes around is a satisfying notion for so many people, yet honors students get killed by drunk drivers and war criminals die in their sleep at ninety. And few of us are perfectly good or bad, but a lot of both, so depending on whom you ask, we might deserve lung cancer or malaria or an earthquake, but it's subjective. And then there is the genetic wildcard, which means some people eat lentils and die before their kids grown up and other knock back a fifth of Scotch and two packs a day their entire adult lives and still hit eighty.
Then there is the preoccupation with action: if we're not writing books or running marathons or doing tantric yoga for two days at a time, the notion goes, we're frittering away our old age. When does the bloody race end, then? Didn't old people used to get to sit in rocking chairs and pontificate on the lessons life had taught them? And didn't younger people have to sit and listen out of respect?
I know ageism is an issue and that we shouldn't limit our ideas about what people can contribute to the advanced years any more than we should to their gender or the color of their skin. And anyone who wants to tackle me on the running trail or in the workplace can quite likely beat me and teach me a great deal in the process. But honestly, the pressure. At some point, I hope we can collectively decide there is something to be said for sitting down and just being. If baby boomers leave any legacy, maybe it will be this: they will finally find contentment trumps achievement. But I doubt it.