The Zoomer Philosophy and Q&A with Moses Znaimer, Featuring Photography by Bryan Adams
Photo: Bryan Adams
We celebrated Zoomer‘s first anniversary with The Zoomer Philosophy by Moses Znaimer.
In December of 1962, Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, embarked on a monthly series of essays which he called The Playboy Philosophy. The series lasted 25 issues, just over two years, and to read the pieces today is a revelation. They are by turns fascinating and turgid, defiant and defensive, and always interminable enough to make you wonder if the guy with the satin bathrobe and the pipe had any sense of humour at all. Whatever its flaws, though, Hefner’s Philosophy had a clear historic ambition that it pursued with considerable success: to break what he considered to be the last taboo of his day — sex.
Half a century later, a new philosophy is required, because of a new last taboo. The last taboo of our age, I believe, is no longer sex — but age and aging. Aging is sex for the new millennium, the topic we don’t discuss openly, the thing that happens to other people behind closed doors. In deference to this last taboo, people of age have been denied their right (our right!) in the popular mindset to sensuality, to adventure, to any unconventionality that can’t be smiled at fondly by a condescending universe. Older people today aren’t “allowed” to be dangerously irreverent, relevantly wise, politically significant or, most scandalous of all, controlling agents in our own decline and death.
Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, we have become an invisible demographic. Like Rodney Dangerfield’s pop-eyed Everyman, older people today “don’t get no respect.”
Historically, the opposite held true. In his book History of Old Age: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, the French historian Georges Minois notes that, in many ancient societies, “Old age [was considered] wisdom” and that, especially among people with oral traditions, the role of the old person was regarded as “the clan’s memory … its educator and judge.” A traditional African motto states, “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” And the Krighiz, an ancient Afghani tribe, had a saying: “As one declines in strength, one increases in wisdom.”
Biblical and classical voices concur. The Fifth Commandment handed down to Moses in the Book of Exodus, “Honour your father and your mother” is essentially an instruction to respect our Elders, the society members most likely to teach essential lessons. (It’s interesting to note that in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments Moses’ transformation from rash young man to wise leader is represented by Charlton Heston’s famous sudden acquisition of white hair and a beard.) “Understanding,” King Solomon later wrote, “is grey hair.” Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, noted, “In youth and beauty, wisdom is but rare!” implying that in age and seasoned looks, it was more common.
Thereafter, the endorsements kept coming — Marcus Tullius Cicero, 33 BC: “An honoured old age has so great authority, that this is of more value than all the pleasure of youth”; Dante Alighieri, AD 1300: “It is right at this [advanced] age that a man’s judgments and authority should be a light and a law to others”; Leonardo da Vinci, circa AD 1500: “Old age has wisdom for its food ….” The encomia lauded not only the wisdom of older people but also their closeness to infinity. According to the anthropologist Louis-Vincent Thomas, the older person “was the best mediator between this world and the next.” In the Western religions, God is almost always old.
So what changed? How has old age come to lose so much status today? One possible answer is rarity. Part of the historical appeal of the older person was simple numerical uniqueness. A famous examination of 187 prehistoric skulls in the mid-20th century 2 showed that only three of them belonged to people over the age of 50. “The very rarity of these prehistoric old men,” says Minois, “gave them importance. Their contemporaries felt that the ability to survive for so long was an extraordinary phenomenon that couldn’t be completely natural.”
Even in the late 19th century, the elderly were still the exception to the demographic rule. When Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Prussia, created the world’s first old-age pension plan in 1889 (not so much out of compassion but to pre-empt Germany’s fledgling socialist movement, which was agitating for reform), he chose 70 as the age of qualification precisely because so few people ever reached it. Today, with the massive baby boom generation reaching its 60s, numerical distinction isn’t a card older people can play any longer.
We can no longer trade rarity for esteem. Nor, in a technological era, can we parlay our status as society’s collective memory into respect. Books, libraries and, finally, the Internet have taken care of that.
The devaluation of age is due to some-thing more significant than numbers and more personal than technology.
The same population bulge that today is producing the largest generation of older people to ever populate Canada and the planet also produced the largest young demographic in history in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The very same people!
This tsunami of youth was rendered even more potent by the decrease in the number of adults around at the time, a result of the horrendous combat losses and social attrition of the Second World War. And, what those young people saw when they looked at what their parents and grandparents had wrought, was an abattoir: a century of war and gruesome slaughter, the rise of totalitarianisms, the advent of nuclear weapons and the greatest single atrocity ever visited by one powerful group of people on an-other defenceless group of people in modern times.
In response, youth said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Their parents, depleted in number and conviction by the events of the ’30s and ’40s, were helpless to control them. Starting with the folk-protest movement of the late ’50s, the Civil Rights and Quiet Revolution movements of the ’60s and the rise of rock and roll, the Baby Boomers created themselves as a counterculture of commercialized rebellion, featuring popular culture rejection of the old and celebration of the young. Heeding the words of Jerry Rubin — “Don’t trust anyone over 30” — Boomers began to deride age: to be old wasn’t to be wise but to be obtuse and obsolete, as Dylan suggested in The Times They are a Changin’. So much so, that The Who proclaimed “Hope I die before I get old” in a song that became an anthem for “My Generation.”
As the ’70s melted into the ’80s and Boomers grew into adulthood and moved into the workforce, they took the cult of youth with them. Suddenly, youth was the only relevant demo-graphic. Where once suaveness and sex were the province of adults, now hot and cool were both youth-oriented; and to be either, you had to be or look or act young. In 1970, nine of the top 10 box-office movies were movies for adults, one was for kids; by 2003, the ratio was reversed. Arguably, the most dubious residue of the post-war marketing revolution was the institutionalization of teens, 18- to 35-year-old men and 18- to 49-year-old women as the only “desirable” demographics.
And then one morning in 2006, Bob Dylan woke up, and he was 65 years old.
As people of age, we have inherited the wind. The question is, do we have the conviction, the chutzpa, to tear down the taboo against age that we ourselves helped construct? We’re in a unique position to pull off this trick; we’re still numerous, educated and wealthy with-out precedent; and for an “older” demo-graphic, still relatively young. We are unlike any older generation who ever lived. Our strengths are formidable.
But our Achilles heel is our own lingering prejudice against age. To launch a real “aging” revolution, we have to change not only how the world feels about us but how we feel about our-selves. It’s time to create a new story for ourselves, to invent a New Old, a new word for Boomers with Zip — and a new philosophy to go with it.
– Moses Znaimer
In a Prelude to “The Zoomer Philosophy,” We Get Inside Moses Znaimer’s Brain. Jay Teitel Plays Devil’s Advocate
Q: The charge has been made that your championing of the Zoomer cause now is one more marketing trick — the man who once gave us Citytv and MuchMusic and the youth culture is trying to do the same thing with the older contingent. How credible can that be? Why should Zoomers trust you?
MZ: The implication of that question is that somehow I’ve gone over to the “other side”; that because I used to serve youth so well, I can only now serve age cynically. The answer to all that is no and no; I’m still serving the same gang and appear to be the only one who noticed that the people who were once young are today older. The mistake the marketers and politicians and journalists keep making is in treating the Boomer generation as if it were frozen in time. Of course the media I offered then were youthful; because my people then, the Boomers, were youthful. But even then, I was already thinking what happens when we all grow up?
Q: So you still contend that the marketing involved here isn’t cynical?
MZ: You’re missing the deeper point (and sounding like the left, who regard every success except their own as the product of a conspiracy). You can’t really make marketing work for long without an underlying truth. The “dirty little secret” is that the Western world is aging rapidly today, and the rest of the planet will follow soon. And it’s my view that that’s not a “problem” to be “managed” but good news to be celebrated! That’s why my Zoomer word has taken hold and why people are taking our views seriously. I’ve caught the moment.
Q. Where are you getting the greatest resistance to your New Vision of Aging?
MZ: Interestingly, sadly, but I suppose predictably, we see that some seniors themselves have as much difficulty shaking off old attitudes and prejudicial language as younger people. When we decided to change the name [from CARP magazine to Zoomer], as well as the look and feel of the magazine, we heard from this constituency. We heard that it was too big, had too much in it, was too heavy, was too glossy, had too much advertising. It’s that classic Canadian suspicion of Canadian success. You know, the people who vote NDP: We understand that you have to sell a few ads to pay the bills but, God forbid, we wouldn’t want you to be too successful, let alone successful while doing something good.
Q: You don’t sound surprised to find yourself in this position, fighting this particular fight.
MZ: I’m not. I’ve thought about this a long time. In the late 1990s, I prepared an application for the CRTC, for a service called ZoomerTV, which I filed in 2002. They turned me down. I argued that what had made the Boomers important was not that they were young but that they were large. They were dominant then because they were large, and they will be dominant tomorrow because they’re still large. “They” was also “me.”
Q: Is that important?
MZ: Ask any artist. You speak your best truth out of your own experience. I bring forward the new. That’s always been my contribution; so by now, I know the first guy through the door takes some blows. But I always keep going. I never give up.