Chapter 11: The Love that Dare Not Speak its Age

Reclaiming May-December relationships (of all kinds).

A year ago, in the first of the columns that make up The Zoomer Philosophy, I noted that my inspiration was Hugh Hefner’s iconic 1960s collection of essays, The Playboy Philosophy. Ten chapterslater, it seems fitting to look in Hef’s direction again but in a different context. His Playboy Philosophy addressed the taboo of sex; our Zoomer Philosophy takes on the taboo of aging. Today, at the ripe old age of 84, Hefner is combining sex and aging as the prime exemplar of another controversial and oft-maligned phenomenon: the May-December relationship.

Hefner has spent his “retirement” squiring and bedding a succession of beautiful, often blond young women up to 60 years his junior. This has earned him progressively less admiration and more ridicule, as time has gone by. How much envy there must be in that ridicule! This is, after all, a Zoomer who has reputedly been sleeping with two, sometimes three, women at the same time, ensemble. But might this seemingly shallow pursuit of pleasure and publicity spring from a deeper insight? Once again, the old guy with the smoking jacket and pipe may have something revolutionary to tell us.

But first, a bit of background about May-December relationships. They refer, of course, to romantic and/or sexual relationships in which one of the partners is noticeably older than the other: an older man with a younger woman or an older woman with a younger man. But how much older? In the Western tradition, the maximum allowable difference appears to be 20 years. The Chinese, with 5,000-plus years of observation to guide them, hold that the ideal combination is a man with a woman half his age plus seven years (e.g., a 30-year-old man should pair with a 22-year-old woman, a 50-year-old with a 32-year-old, a 70-year-old with a 42-year-old and so on). Aristotle, on the other hand, wrote that the ideal marrying age was 37 for a man, 18 for a woman. (his argument, that with this gap the couple’s sexual desire would decline at the same rate, assumed erroneously that female sexual desire ended with menopause.)

In our culture, the Hefnerian older male is typically cast as a somewhat ridiculous, dirty, old man, usually rich, while the younger female is seen as a gold digger. In the female-male version, the older woman is an equally ridiculous, love-starved dowager, also rich, bedecked in jewels and cosmetic surgery, while the younger man is the gigolo gold digger. Both scenarios assume that the younger partner is making the bigger sacrifice and the older one is paying for it; and both scenarios inspire a visceral reaction in the public at large that’s a combination of distaste and fascination. It seems like pure sensationalism when we read about celebrity age gaps (the male-female record is held by J. Howard Marshall II and Anna Nicole Smith — 63 years difference — while the female-male mark is held by Gina Lollobrigida and Javier Rigau y Rafols — 34 years). But many of these relationships are surprisingly solid: Mary Tyler Moore, 73, and her husband, Dr. Robert Levine, 56, have been married since 1983 (when she was 46 and he was 29). And listening to the people involved reveals something more profound than prurient. The poet T.S. Eliot thought his marriage at the age of 68 to a woman who was 38 years his junior was the thing that finally let him mature — on his 70th birthday, he claimed: “I’m just beginning to grow up.” Ashton Kutcher, the famous 32-year-old mate of Demi Moore, 47, talks about how the insights of his older wife have taught him, most dramatically, about the uselessness of “being right.” “We deal with issues before they become arguments,” he says. “Demi told me once, ‘When you’re right, that’s all you get to be.’ And, for some reason, that made sense to me.”

Many people believe that May-December marriages are on the rise, but the opposite is true. A 2008 study done by Karen Rolf and Joseph P. Ferrie, of the University of Nebraska and North-western University respectively, reveals that the age gap between American husbands and wives reached a peak in 1870 and has been declining steadily since. This makes sense historically — in the days before widespread female employment, women looked for older, more established husbands who could better support them; and, given the high mortality rate for women during childbirth, men often married more than one young woman in a lifetime. Even more significantly, as the age gap between husbands and wives has narrowed with the passage of time, so has the age gap between people who live together and communicate with each other. The decline in romance and marriage has been paralleled by a decline in May-December points of contact in our society in general. Intergenerational involvement is quickly becoming a thing of the past in our lives, and we all stand to be losers because of it.

In 2009, the American Economic Review published a paper by a pair of researchers who had been examining the quality of older workers’ performance in relation to their younger counterparts. They gave both “junior” (under 30) and “senior” (over 50) employees a series of tasks and scored them afterward. The juniors turned out to be more competitive than the seniors, but the older workers outscored the younger in several categories, including co-operation. The most surprising finding, though, was in group work: the researchers found that teams comprising a mix of junior and senior workers outperformed teams that were either completely senior or completely junior.

What did the junior and senior workers get from each other that the monolithic groups didn’t? Precisely what May-December relationships have always been said to provide in the ideal: the juniors benefit from the stability and experience of the seniors; and the seniors benefit from the energy of their younger teammates and their familiarity with current popular culture and technology.

I’ve always been agnostic about age: the last thing I think about when I relate to people is how old they might be. As it turned out, I spent a good deal of my career as the youngest guy in the room. Then one day, I wasn’t. In companies, it’s always wise to have a spread: you want the up-and-coming crackerjacks but you also need some “old hands” with good institutional knowledge. And the rule of the mix extends beyond the boardroom or the bedroom. Just as cities have finally come to realize that “mixed use” is highly preferable to the barren separation of industrial areas from commercial and residential ones so it’s time for us to realize that an environment in which generations regularly intermingle is vital to our quality of life. The alternative is increasing isolation of both young and old.

Nowhere is this ghettoization more evident than in our retirement communities. Not so long ago, it was common for a single family home to house three and sometimes four generations. Married children often moved back into their parents’ homes (wings might be added), and older parents lodged with their adult children. The result was a house that contained elders and babies and everyone in between. Today, typically, only first-generation ethnic families enjoy anything like this generational abundance. Retirement homes and communities are designed only for people of a certain age, and apartment buildings are generally identified as “family,” “adult” or “seniors.” This creeping societal division by age has its own momentum. I have a friend whose 90-year-old mother recently decided against moving into a downtown retirement home because many of the residents already there were, in her words, “too young” (in their 60s).

There are nursing homes that have day care on the premises (for the children of the working staff); and you only have to see the kick residents get from watching kids at play to realize how nourishing the mixing of generations can be. It’s this insight that led Liz Martorano of Brantford, Ont., to form an organization called SKIP — “Seniors and Kids Intergenerational Programs” — which brings together elementary school students and seniors to enjoy conversation and music, and “to talk about career paths.” But organizations like SKIP are few and far between. It remains as difficult to find a mixed generation community in our cities these days as it is to find a corner store on a suburban street.

This needs to change. So, in the best spirit of Hugh Hefner, I’d like to issue a call to Zoomers to consider a model for life that includes people of all ages. We all like to be with our own, but biases are made to be broken. The most insidious of those biases (because older people are often just as prone to hold them as anyone) is still the one that says that when May gets together with December, the bargain is always tilted: the young giveth and the old taketh away. This has never been true; we have vast plusses to offer the callow set. If you don’t believe it, remember that possibly the most famous May-December movie ever made, Harold and Maude, involved a death-obsessed 20-something boy-man (played by Bud Cort) who falls in love with a free- spirited 79-year-old woman (Ruth Gordon) who teaches him to love life, not suicide, because life is about “trying something new every day.” Or listen to the words of Guy Ritchie, 10 years younger than his rock-star Zoomer-aged ex-wife, Madonna. “I can understand that the whole world  is interested in my wife. That’s why I married her.”

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.