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 Thomas1, 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 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 contem- poraries 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 something 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.4 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 another 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.”5 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 demographic. 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 revo- lution 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 without precedent; and for an “older” demographic, 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 ourselves. 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.
1. Anthropologie de la mort (Payot, 1975), p. 362.
2. La Vieillesse, problÃ¨me d’aujourd’hui (Groupe © Lyonnais d’Ã‰tudes Medicales, SPES, Paris 1961).
3. A persistent myth claims that Bismarck set 65 as the classic retirement age because that was his own age at the time. In fact, he chose 70, and he himself was 74.
4. Between 1946 and 1976, the population of Canada, which had been relatively static for the previous 30 years, doubled from approximately 12 million to 24.
5. If you want a laugh, check out the U.K. Zoomer group called The Zimmers singing “My Generation” complete with the
smashing of instruments. www.youtube.com/ watch?v=zqfFrCUrEbY.
6. I speak with some authority here, having created some of the signature youth channels of the era: CityTV, MuchMusic, Space etc.
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.