Chapter 38: Report From the Revolution

Looking back, much progress and still a long way to go.

The idea for what would eventually become the Zoomer “Mission” first came to me the night in 1984 when I launched MuchMusic out of Citytv. The debut of a youth-oriented music video channel might seem like a counterintuitive inspiration for a seniors initiative, but that’s exactly the way it came to me, with a logic all its own. Watching the service go to air that night, a question popped into my head: Can you run a rock ’n’ roll machine when you’re 60? That question quickly mutated into: Can we support a TV rock station when we’re 60? The “we” was “you,” the audience and demographic I’d spent my career catering to; the vast, newly discovered and increasingly powerful boomer generation that was then at the height of its youthful influence but which was actually standing on a precipice without knowing it. That precipice was age or, rather, people’s perception of it.

That night was the first time it occurred to me that the people who largely made up the City/Much audience were aging, together with the people making these media products for them and, as such, we were headed toward the realm of afterthought and irrelevance. Why? Because society almost uniformly considered aging a bad thing, a blanket negative. There were whispers cropping up of the aging of Canada, of the planet, and all of them were whispers of doom.

That struck me as weird. After all, on the simplest level, aging was a matter of living longer, something with which all of human history has been obsessed in our endless efforts to increase lifespan. Why try to extend something that was so odious? The issue wasn’t added years; it was what Jonathan Swift had put so insightfully back at the beginning of the 18th century: “Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old.” But why couldn’t aging be a good thing, I thought? Our gang has been typically ahead of the curve, so why couldn’t we be at the vanguard of this issue, too? That way, we could strike a blow not just for our own later life but for the great achievement that is later life in general. Did it make sense, for example, that if the people I was speaking to and for represented such a significant new force in business in 1984 (when the oldest of them were already 40) that their relevance should suddenly expire at age 50 or 55? Of course not! We could stay relevant as we aged; we just had to convince the powers that be – and ourselves. As Susan Eng, the vice-president of Advocacy for CARP, would one day put it: “We needed to change the conversation.”

And so throughout the rest of the ’80s and most of the ’90s, while I dealt with various opportunities and obligations, the idea that became ZoomerMedia percolated. In that time, I had come to the conclusion that for the Advocacy and the Business to have a chance of success we had to have three things. First, a synergy with CARP, which constituted troops already on the ground, had to be involved. Second, the messaging had to involve more than just one medium, the better to be noticed. Third, it all had to have a catchy name, with which people could readily identify.

It’s not often in my experience that you can “see” a plan in your mind in a single instant and then carry it out almost to the letter; but that’s what happened here. Where others had tried to align with CARP and been unsuccessful, I was able to work it out. CARP already had an association magazine, which I then relaunched as this more popular consumer publication in your hand. For additional media, I turned to VisionTV, a hidden gem overlooked because its audience was old. I thought it had tremendous potential. As for radio, for years I’d been quietly lobbying the heroic but money-losing owner of the Classical Music Station CFMX to sell it to me if ever he decided to retire. Finally he did, and Classical 96.3FM joined the mission, followed a few years later by AM740, which I dubbed Zoomer Radio.

Failure is an orphan, but success has many parents. Because of other claims to its invention and because of the possibility that I might have subliminally seen the word “Zoomer” before it came to me personally, I don’t claim to have invented the word, just that we have popularized it. Nonetheless, proof that I had a genuine eureka moment when the word came to me lies in the fact that it was so personal. My flash was of a combination of “Znaimer” and “boomer.” I know that was not very modest of me (and only a fortuitous dropping of the second consonant has saved us all from being known as “Znoomers”) but, less egotistically, Zoomer has come everywhere to stand for “Boomers with Zip.”

I like to divide the battles fought and won into specific and global categories. Specifically, the issues we initially tackled were mandatory retirement, GIS top-ups for the poorest seniors, elder abuse, caregiver support, and pension and health reform. Success has been substantial but also incomplete. On the mandatory retirement front, we’ve pretty well triumphed. By getting such legislation repealed across Canada, we helped insure that older workers keep “the right to work.” Now, we have to make sure they’re not squeezed out by other means and that they can keep their jobs or get new ones if they
still need or want them. With regards to pensions, along with others we convinced the federal government to delay the enforced breaking-open of RRSPs by people hitting 71 years of age during the worst days of that 2008 financial crisis, which would have forced them to try to sell their holdings into the worst market in years. Also, we’ve succeeded in getting both the public and the government to acknowledge that many Canadians aren’t saving adequately for retirement. But we haven’t yet managed to get the feds to adopt a CPP-like supplementary plan, something CARP has, over five years of persistent, consistent messaging, convinced several pension experts, think-tanks and even a major bank CEO to endorse. We’ll keep plugging away.

Health-care reform for an aging population is now, of course, on everyone’s lips; but it wasn’t until CARP started calling for a comprehensive care continuum in our One Patient proposal that the dialogue turned from hysterical gloom to positive practicalities. To date, the provincial premiers have, as a group, declared their commitment to seniors’ health care and, just this past summer, the Canadian Medical Association called for a seniors’ care strategy. This is a far cry from older patients being described as “bed-blockers,” the insider term before CARP took its position.

But for me, more significant than what we’ve gotten done is how we’ve gotten it done. We’ve dramatically altered the tone with which our issues are received in the public sphere. We’ve brought them from the fringes of public discourse to front and centre, from faintly insulting to properly respectful. Susan Eng points out that today, to hear analysts talk about the large clout of older voters being even more effective because “they vote all the time” is commonplace; before we made the point, though, no one thought to mention it. Says Eng, “We’re getting things done now more as players and less as supplicants.”

In other words, we have changed the conversation. We have recovered at least some of our historic relevance and influence and, as more than one younger observer has pointed out, our boomer smugness. But to be noticed for being demanding, even pushy, is infinitely preferable to being forgotten as inconsequential. Not everyone has been enamoured of our little revolution, including some within our natural constituency. There have been CARP members who haven’t been pleased by the glossiness of the ads in our magazine, by the good-looking people in them or the fact that some of the ads promote items they’re not interested in or can’t afford. But isn’t that true of most advertising? Glamour and style and, yes, even envy are indications that our Mission operates in the real world. Advertising itself is an indication that the world actually notices what we’re doing here: “Oh, we forgot that you’re still there, that you do exist; maybe we should address you, too.”

The one approach to Aging I reject out of hand – and I think a majority of Zoomers agree – is the victim culture. None of the great feedback I ever got at Citytv/Much/Bravo/Space/etc., ever came close in intensity to the appreciation and sheer gratitude I hear in people’s voices for what they feel CARP and ZoomerMedia have done for them in the past few years. They feel we’ve been their champion, not in acquiring pity for them, but in giving them a voice, a sense that they haven’t been forgotten or put out to pasture; a sense that they matter once more!

To those of you who find the struggle taxing, I say take heart: trail-blazing is rarely easy. On the walls of the TV Museum here at the ZoomerPlex, we’ve put up tributes to the six largely unknown men most responsible for the development of the most pervasive medium the world has ever known; yet four of them went broke in their lifetimes.

So far, we’ve dodged that fate. In fact, we’re doing pretty well. We’ve accomplished much and have much left to do, which I’m sure we will, no doubt annoying some people in the process.

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.