Mutton dressed as lamb

Why can't the baby boomers grow old gracefully?

James Harkin

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Topics Politics

The pornographer Richard Desmond is often maligned, but the brains behind that iconic top-shelf title 50 plus might simply have been ahead of his time.

The announcement by the BBC in April 2002 that Hanif Kureishi’s new film would feature a sexually explicit romance between a woman of advanced years and a young man is only the latest attempt to raise awareness of issues affecting the over-50s. This ‘frank and startling’ new film, according a po-faced plug in the UK Observer, ‘sets out to challenge society’s taboo about the erotic sensibilities of elderly women’ (1).

Kureishi’s film may be frank and startling – readers of 50 plus will submit it to their own critical scrutiny – but the BBC’s decision to commission it was also made with a nod to its middle-aged constituency.

Debates about the ‘ageing society’ usually focus on the increased prospects for longevity of the new generation of senior citizens, and call forth gloomy prognostications about the state of pension funds. But as important is the effect that the ‘middle-ageing’ of society will have on the social fabric, as baby boomers (that unusually large cohort born between 1946 and 1964) arrive at the centre of British social life.

As the baby boomers nestle into middle age and look ahead to retirement, they are continuing to hog the media limelight, and are determined to see positive media representations of the ageing process. If the wind blowing in from America is anything to judge by – where marketers and TV schedulers are going out of their way to appease the boomers – sensitivity to their concerns is likely to become acute in the coming decade.

In the UK, the influence of the baby boomers is already responsible for a glut of articles announcing that older people can have wonderful sex, or raising consciousness about the invisibility of people over 50 in public life. Under the rubric of ‘age empowerment’, middle-aged celebrities like Cilla Black are given carte blanche to parade their wares on prime-time TV while washed-out old rock stars are given license to squeeze themselves back into their leather pants and go on tour.

There is an argument that the vain and attention-seeking baby boomer is no more than a fiction perpetrated by the media and culture industries. But it is more than that. As the mass market for consumer goods disintegrates into an a bewildering variety of segments, baby boomers are tempted to see themselves as jockeying for position with the young people who have traditionally been at the cutting-edge of popular media.

At the same time, determined not to lose touch with their customers, the marketers and TV people who have traditionally lavished attention on the youth market are learning to listen to baby boomers. As the boomers become more vocal, politicians will also be more keen to listen to their concerns. Given the opportunism of our New Labour government, how long before Tony Blair inaugurates a Minister for the Middle-Aged?

The determination of baby boomers to halt the ageing process leaves them susceptible to commercial flattery. Pharmaceutical and cosmetics manufacturers look set to prosper as a result of boomer anxieties about beauty and wellbeing. The market for foods and beverages that promise health benefits beyond their nutritional value has doubled in the USA in the past four years – a large part of the explosive growth in these ‘functional’ or ‘neutraceutical’ foods can be attributed to baby boomers who are acutely conscious of the state of their bodies.

It is entirely possible that people can lead satisfying sex lives after 50. It is even possible that some bodies over 50 might be worth a look. But it is also one of the facts of life that younger bodies are physically more attractive than older ones, and that younger people usually make more pliable partners between the sheets. The decay of the physical body that accompanies ageing has traditionally been compensated for by the growth of mental attributes like wisdom, experience and intelligence. All that appears lost on many baby boomers, who are more interested in waging a losing battle to retain the body beautiful.

More fundamentally, the refusal among many baby boomers to face up to the natural process of growing old is a symptom of a generation lacking in the spiritual tools with which to face ageing and death. The mawkish sentimentality and blanket media coverage that greeted the death of minor Beatle George Harrison back in November 2001 was explained by some commentators as the shocked recognition among baby boomers of their own mortality.

Having lost their faith in organised religion and found nothing durable with which to replace it, many Baby Boomers seem unable to approach the process of ageing with dignity and stoicism. That is their loss.

James Harkin is a forecaster at the Social Issues Research Centre and a consultant to EngAGE, a global research project into the lifestyles of over-50’s by trends consultancy HeadlightVision.

(1) Sex and the single grandmother, Observer, May 19 2002

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