Chapter 35: Older Boys and Girls Together
Welcome to the Second Great Age of Dating.
The picture opposite struck me as instantly expressive of the Zeitgeist when I first saw it in the April 18 edition of the U.K.-based Mail Online newspaper. The women ranged in age from 29 to 64, and the answer to the question ranged from “4½ years ago” to “yesterday afternoon.” That was surprising enough – but my surprise grew even greater when the accompanying article revealed that “4½ years ago” belonged to the 29-year-old (second from left) and “yesterday afternoon” belonged to the 64-year-old single granny (far right). A retired nurse now working as a personal trainer and dating columnist, the granny, Diana Banks, reported that she’d had more sex “in the past decade than I did … in my 30-year marriage,” which had ended in divorce. On the “afternoon before” in question, she’d had lunch with a man nine years her junior, whom she’d met online and had gotten to know from phone conversations and four previous dates. After this date, she invited him back to her place where “one thing led to another, and we ended up making love for the first time.”
I regard Diana Banks’s story as extremely good news. My inclination is to cheer everyone on in endeavours like hers, at ages like ours, because what’s involved is what I consider the Life Force at its best: curiosity and hope in the pursuit of novelty and pleasure – sensual, romantic, relational – at a time of life when we need it most; and when we may be uniquely positioned to enjoy it without the usual baggage. The anthropologist Helen Fisher, an adviser to online dating sites Match.com and Chemistry.com, points out that because older singles aren’t seeking reproductive partners, “they can look at a broader range of individuals and are more likely to pick somebody from different socio-economic or religious backgrounds.”
We can also, coincidentally, live longer. A 10-year study conducted in the Welsh town of Caerphilly and surrounding villages with men aged 45 to 59 at its outset showed that the risk of mortality was ultimately 50 per cent lower in subjects who experienced regular orgasms than in those who did not. Other studies have shown that regular sexual activity for women can ease back pain and, yes, cure headaches.
But beneath the sexual surprise of the 64-year-old Ms. Banks, there’s a social subtext that’s just as remarkable. Diane isn’t just having sex, she’s also actively dating, thinking about dating and checking out the opposite sex, as much as another demographic of which she was once a part. Describing one recent encounter, she says, “As we lay there afterwards, laughing like teenagers …” In this case, “teenagers” is the operative word. The term Second Adolescence was first coined in the early 1970s; but it had to wait till the new millennium to truly come into its own. Today, people of our demographic are actively involved in “mating, dating and relating” that can be every bit as comprehensive as their first adolescence. Teenage High has been replaced by Zoomer High. Some of the dynamics are evocative of our earlier experience, and some couldn’t be more different. The resulting mix gives you an intriguing read on how society regards older boys and girls together in the year 2013.
Of the factors that have contributed to the rise of this Second Adolescence, two stand out: divorce rates and technology (Viagra and Hormone Replacement Therapy are two others). Divorce was once rare among older couples, but today one in four divorces in North America involves couples of baby boom age. Boomer-age divorces are the fastest-growing component of the overall divorce rate, so much so that at Match.com, 71 per cent of the 50- to 65-year-old clients are divorced and only 11 per cent are widowed. The result is a re-creation, 40 years later, of a high school at lunchtime: a large cohort of sexually and romantically motivated single people, relatively unfettered by family responsibilities, looking for something, possibly turbocharged by a nagging feeling that time is running out.
Technology just greases the wheels. As Second Adolescents, we don’t have high schools in which to congregate, but we do have the Internet, which in its social network capacity is like high school writ large (what is Facebook but the biggest high-school yearbook ever compiled?). At Match.com, clients aged 50 to 65 are the fastest growing segment, their numbers up almost 100 per cent in the last five years.
Gian Gonzaga, senior research scientist at eHarmony.com, says that while boomers were initially leery of cyberspace dating, “once you shove them out there, they adapt quickly. They remember what it’s like to have fun.”
Now, I’m not claiming that everything about the new adolescence is sweetness and light. Old habits die hard, especially where attitudes to women are concerned. Where 40 years ago, sexually active younger girls and women were stigmatized as “sluts,” today sexually active older women are labelled “cougars,” with all the predatory snarkiness that term implies. Meanwhile, sexually active men of the same age are admired as “players” or “silver foxes.” We hear it over and over again: men age better, they acquire not wrinkles and desperation but a patina, a certain distingué à la Sean Connery and can have their pick of women, presumably until they die; the classic double standard.
The problem with this dated attitude is that, gender-wise, there are profound differences between adolescence then and now. That speeding boomer divorce rate, for instance, is fuelled by a brand-new trend: more than two-thirds of those divorces are initiated by wives. These are women getting rid of men who have upset them, irritated them or disappointed them for a long time. Their kids have left home and, for the first time in history, a large contingent of them is financially independent and career-minded enough not to be trapped in untenable relationships. At the same time, there’s anecdotal evidence that, while women at this age are breaking out and exploring, men are retreating. Florida-based counsellor Shirley Bass, who deals extensively with boomer marital issues, says, “All they [men] want is the computer and TV. Many women leave because they’ve just had it.”
The result is a gender power shift in dating and relationships that’s an exact reversal of how it was when we were 16 instead of 60. Forty years ago, males were the initiators in sexual politics, girls the passive eye candy. Not that this imbalance didn’t exert pressure on the male half as well. After all, the boy may propose, but the girl will dispose. Thus, when I was in high school – a tiny parochial school with a tinier pool of girls – whenever I was set up on a blind date with a girl from another school and I called to introduce myself, she’d invariably ask me two questions: “How tall are you?” (I wasn’t very) and “Do you have a car?” (I didn’t. But I did have an impossibly cute, curly-haired baby sister I had to push around in a stroller every day after school – mom worked – which turned out to be just as effective.) In High School 2.0, though, women are the proposers and men are the eye candy, especially as the number of available males starts to shrink, due to the difference in life expectancy. To see this process in graphic terms, I suggest you tune in to Kings Point, the new TV documentary-cum-reality show set in a large retirement community in Florida airing on HBO Canada. The disparity in the numbers of vigorous women and men is such that any man who can still walk and talk and chew gum makes out like a bandit. I’m waiting for one of them to ask a female suitor if she’s tall or has a car.
When they do meet and get together in the flesh, Second Adolescents perform very differently from actual teenagers, who tend to be angst-ridden and over the top; everything is magnified and every day can bring the end of the universe. Whereas Second Adolescents come equipped with experience, a sense of irony and, most important, proportion. “Older singles also have a better perspective on their personal values and priorities in life,” says Gian Gonzaga.
The person who coined the phrase Second Adolescence was a sociologist named Arlie Russell Hochschild, who used the term in her book The Unexpected Community, published in 1973. She was writing about Merrill Court, a seniors residence housed in a small apartment building in San Francisco, comprising 43 residents, most of them conservative, fundamentalist widows from the mid- and southwestern United States. Not exactly our demographic, you might think. But Hochschild’s description sounds strangely familiar. “If the world watches them less for being old, they watch one another more. Lacking responsibilities to the young, the old take on responsibilities toward one another. Moreover, in a society that raises an eyebrow at those who do not ‘act their age,’ the subculture encourages the old to dance, to sing, to flirt and to joke.”
To dance, to sing, to flirt and to joke. High school redux and with the best extracurricular activity around. Onward the Life Force! Go Team!
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.