Media Hype and the Myth of Ageless Baby Boomers

Paul Kleyman


From our content partner New America Media:


SAN FRANCISCO--As a journalist, my perspective on aging is somewhat unusual, in that in 1972, when I began writing my book, Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously (1974), I believed I’d somehow found my way to the cutting edge of a new frontier in the movement for social justice.


Opposing ageism was a cause I was sure everyone would see manifest in their morning mirrors. Until that period, few in the “Movement” had taken old age very seriously, especially as a looming issue of inequality.


I’d arrived in San Francisco from Minneapolis in time to witness the aftermath of the media-vaunted Summer of Love, as well as the acceleration of the antiwar and social-change movements.


However, after two years immersed in the subject (as both a first-time author and a new father at age 28) and while also working full-time, I found myself fascinated by the depths of issues in aging that remained largely unexplored. I also became increasingly baffled by the undercurrent of resistance to aging, even as a dynamic topic for American journalism.


Now as a “grandpop” (what my 5-year-old grandson calls me), I remain just as confused about how my boomer generation continues to be largely unaware of the ageist undertow in America’s youth-consumed consumer culture.


While one aging boomer after another – and the increasing ranks of 50-plus Gen Xers -- confronts the convoluted challenges of aging, often through care for their elderly parents, the long-term expectation of this aging nation would foment an era of change has dimmed as media attention, marketing forces and political campaigning have zeroed in on the 83.1 million Millennials.


Ageism—the Beat Goes On


America’s commercial and political chase after youth dollars and votes has placed a drag on the country’s ability to prepare for the challenges and opportunities of today’s much vaunted longevity revolution. Public understanding remains lacking in our nation’s need to address such disparate areas as family caregiving, older adult–friendly and safe environments, affordable (and universally designed) senior housing options, elder abuse prevention, and, especially, the widely predicted retirement-finance crisis.


Author Paul Kleyman at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont in 1969.


At the same time, the media’s appeal to older Americans too often translates into marketable nostalgia for the Sixties (cue PBS pledge break here!) and with fiftieth anniversaries, some of them truly historic (the Selma march, the moon landing, three shattering assassinations), and some of more questionable gravity (Woodstock, Altamont, and, yes, the Summer of Love). My view, from more than a half-century in the countercultural epicenter of San Francisco, is that the headlines have largely missed the essential stories of (cue The Who) “M-m-my Generation.”


In paging again through my book Senior Power recently, I came across passage after passage that read as true today as they did when I typed them on my Remington manual. Certainly, there have been improvements, such as enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with its requirements for wheelchair access to public buildings and transportation.


As for the baby boomer trinity of sex, drugs, and rock ’n‘ roll, though, the sexual revolution has long since gone the way of cable TV, both in the crude stream of bleeps and with shows like Frankie and Grace, in which Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda wrestle in their 70s with relationships of all kinds.


Drugs? Marijuana is legal in 26 states, with more pending in 2017, according to Governing Magazine, and numerous articles reveal that aging boomers may benefit the most—not from getting high but in gaining relief from pain and nausea.


As for rock music, all you need to know is that Keith Richards is still at it at age 73. But the fundamental issues of aging—and ageism—haven’t much changed.


Today, age continues as one of the last areas of openly uttered bias across the American cultural spectrum. In early 2017, not only did U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, MD, laugh while stating that brain surgery is a wasted “investment” on “old geezers,” but also the otherwise progressive Daily Show host Trevor Noah ridiculed President Trump as “America’s Xenophobic Old Grandpa” and as a “King Over the Hill.”


Following the 2016 election, pundits from the left and right, such as MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator David Brooks, bemoaned the unlikelihood that Donald Trump could change because “he’s 70.”


I posted a New America Media commentary, headlined “Let Trump Be Held Accountable, Not Just ‘Too Old to Change.’” And Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s book Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump shows the 45th U.S. President’s behavior hasn’t changed in at least 30 years (Trudeau, 2016).


As the still dynamic Tina Turner (at age 77) might sing today, “What’s age got to do with it?”



When Ageism and Racism Intersect


Regarding only one example of ageism then and now, I opened Senior Power and found, “Ageism is particularly virulent against those who are already vulnerable to other kinds of discrimination. A political observer of the problems of the aged, Professor Robert Binstock, has written, ‘In almost every measurable respect black older people are about twice as badly off as the rest of the aged population’”


What about the double jeopardy of age and race? A 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation report states, “The official poverty rate in 2013 was nearly three times larger among Hispanic adults than among white adults ages 65 and older (20 percent versus 7 percent) and two and a half times larger among black adults ages 65 and older (18 percent).”


And in 2010, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging Fernando Torres-Gil, also a past president of the American Society on Aging, criticized the false image of largely white affluence presented in a CNBC special called Tom Brokaw Reports: Boomer$.


Disappointing to many who work in aging, Brokaw, the very same journalist who had rehabilitated the “Greedy Geezer” image of World War II-era older adults as “The Greatest Generation,” defaulted to a stereotypical depiction of aging baby boomers as “history’s wealthiest and most influential generation,” who pursue a “unique and unyielding quest to preserve their youth.”


Criticizing the program’s lack of diversity, Torres-Gil asserted, “Latino baby boomers are an important bellwether of the [coming] demographic changes. Yet, Latino baby boomers remain a largely hidden population, and little is understood about their socio-demographic and economic characteristics.”


The Business of Age Discrimination


One doesn’t have to be impoverished to feel the effects of age discrimination in the 21st century. In his 2014 book, Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life, Chris Farrell noted about older workers, “Far too many employers are hostile to the idea of hiring someone with gray hair. Negative stereotypes are rampant, cutting older workers out of new projects and corporate initiatives,” despite ample evidence that more mature workers are highly reliable and do not cost more in insurance and other expenses.


From our content partner New America Media. Read the rest of the article here.


Author Bio:


Paul Kleyman is director of the Ethnic Elders Newsbeat at New America Media in San Francisco and, as the national coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations, he is the editor of the Network’s e-mail newsletter, Generations Beat Online. This article is adapted from his essay in the 2017 “Summer of Love” issue of Generations, journal of the American Society on Aging.

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