THE NEWS OF THE DAY — and for that matter the history of the twentieth century — gives every good reason to despair for the future of our society. And yet, as bleak as things may seem, there are other forces in play — subtle, long-term undercurrents that are shaping our lives for the better even if we cannot always see them at work. One of these, and I believe it is the most consequential but least appreciated force of all, is the demographic transition usually called the longevity revolution. That more people are living longer is common knowledge, the subject of all the television snippets about pension plans, health care, and fitness that fill in the last five minutes of the network news. What is less recognized is how deeply rooted our lengthening life expectancy is in the history of modern times, that it is indeed so inevitable a development that it deserves to be seen as the biological and spiritual destiny of our species.
The longevity revolution is a cultural sea change that does not depend on the brilliant insights of a few gifted minds, less still on organized movements or the charisma of a great leader. It is more like an environmental than a political transformation. Indeed, I believe it may be the planetary ecology finding a way to protect its cargo of life from a runaway industrial system.
In 1969, Ted Roszak took his first
look at the boomer generation with his award-winning
social commentary, The Making of a Counter Culture.
Now, 40 years later, he has has written a call to
arms for the same generation. It reminds boomers
that they will spend more time being old then they
every spent being young — and suggests ways in which
they can uniquely transform our society, picking up
on the ideals they formed in the 60's.
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As the author notes, "My hope is that people who grew up on
J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, the
poetry of Allen Ginsburg, the folk music of Pete
Seeger, the protest ballads of Country Joe, the
anarchic insolence of the Beatles and the Rolling
Stones, the biting satire of Mort Sahl and Lenny
Bruce, the acid rock of Bob Dylan, the sociology of
Paul Goodman and Herbert Marcuse, the Summer of Love
and the Days of Rage, will not be content to spend
their retirement years on cruise ships or feeding
their Social Security income into slot machines at
the nearest casino."
Part demographic study, part history, part
critique and part appeal, Roszak's take on the
imminent retransformation of our world is as wise as
it is inspired.
As a history teacher, I have often pondered the fact that, throughout the past, the people I have been studying were born to a life span of some 50 years. By the time they reached 45, they were old. Some lived to be very old, but not many. When old age pensions were first established in Europe and the United States, the retirement age was arbitrarily set at 65 by political leaders who knew that most people would never live to collect the money. That in itself — the sense of how much time one has left to work out one’s salvation — changes everything about the way one makes choices, about one’s hopes and ambitions.
In its youth, the boomer generation discovered the politics of consciousness transformation. “You say you want a revolution… Well, you know, we all want to change your head.” I had students during the sixties and seventies who were dosing on anything that was rumored to be psychedelic, every herb, plant, and industrial chemical they could lay their hands on that might allow them to explore some purportedly higher level of awareness. But the greatest consciousness-transforming agent of all, in fact, comes to us from within our own experience and as naturally as breathing. It is the experience of aging, which brings with it new values and visions, none of them grounded in competition and careerism, none of them beholden to the marketplace.
It may be that the old have always realized that you can’t take it with you, but their numbers were never great enough, their voice never strong enough, to make them a decisive factor in society; nor did they expect to live long enough to lend their insight any social importance. Now, in ever greater numbers, we are aging beyond the values that created the urban–industrial world. That fact begins with the boomers, but it will roll forward into generations to come as the now-young become the then-old — and live longer and longer. Which means that every institution in our society will be transformed as its population drifts further and further from competitive individualism, military–industrial bravado, and the careerist rat race. It is as if the freeways of the world will one day soon begin to close down, starting with the fast lane and finally turning into pastures and meadows.
And with that change in personal life we can begin to see a subtle wave of ecological change that will help us rein in the worst excesses of commercialism, consumerism, and environmental damage. Life in “Eldertown” will be nothing like the worldwide urban ethos of freeways, sprawling suburbs, shopping malls, and gas-guzzling cars. The elder culture will find little reason to uproot forests, pollute the seas, and strip mine the Earth. To be sure, on its own, the ecology of aging will not take effect rapidly, surely not soon enough to save many environmental treasures. But that is not what I expect. Rather I believe there will come a time within this century, perhaps before the boomer generation leaves the scene, when we begin to recognize that, by working along the grain of the longevity revolution and the changes it brings about in our everyday values, we can achieve an environmentally enlightened social order.
What will our world be like when there are more people above the age of 50 (or 60 or 70) than below, people whose highest needs are for compassion, companionship, philosophical insight, and a modestly sustainable way of life? If the aging of the modern world is experienced consciously and creatively with an awareness of how promising this transition is, it can be the path to the sort of countercultural utopian social order that became so popular among the countercultural young during the sixties and seventies.
Others will disagree. They see the rise of the wrinklies as a disaster, a fiscal train wreck, a death blow to the prospects for progress. They see a world dominated by grandparent power as backward, stagnant, and unaffordable, a society burdened to the point of bankruptcy by nursing homes and demented millions. Meanwhile, there are those in the biotech community who are doing all they can to extend our life expectancy by decades, if not centuries — seemingly with no regard for the larger consequences of what they do.
Perhaps the doomsayers will be correct. Perhaps it will turn out that way — though not because it has to. My own hope is that the boomers — the best educated, most widely traveled, most innovative generation we have ever seen — are not too frivolous to face the dilemmas of longevity. On the contrary. I believe they will, in growing numbers as the years unfold, recognize that the making of an elder culture is the great task of our time, a project that can touch life's later years with nobility and intellectual excitement.