There was a famous slogan, during the 1960’s anti-Vietnam War/hippie/yippie era, a mantra of the youthful political left: “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” It was a catchy line, meant to warn of the fuddyduddyness, if not duplicity, of the older generations then in charge of the world.
A corollary popular in private conversation was, “I’m not ever going to grow up,” always said with self-satisfied pride and wide-eyed anticipation of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll into an infinite future.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. The responsibilities of marriage, family, careers and mortgages got in the way and most of those 20- and 30-something flower children and political activists turned out to be a whole lot like the older folks they so underrated.
Nowadays, many of those kids – grown up into their 50s and 60s and older - are still proclaiming their youthfulness. “I’m 70 years young,” they say. Or, “I’m in better shape than when I was 25.” Reading profiles at online dating services for older people is a hoot. Without fail, men and women alike insist they look younger than they are. “I’m 62,” they write (having undoubtedly shaved a few years to arrive at that number), “but don’t look my age.” The accompanying photos leave one to question the state of their vision.
The yearning underlying those statements, to remain young or at least to appear to be younger, is understandable in a culture awash in youth worship and ageism, but it makes those people look foolish, and I feel the same kind of embarrassment for them that a balding man’s comb-over provokes. One of the things Hugh Downs said in this regard, in his TGB Interview, struck me as irrefutably right and so:
“I have really come to embrace the idea that it is beautiful that young people get older and old people get older. This is the wheel of life and if you get hung up on the idea of staying young, you are doomed to disappointment.”
In his column this week, Donald M. Murray, after lovingly lamenting the rigid propriety by which his father lived, identified the kind of youth in age we should all aspire to:
“I have the freedom to construct still another new life in my 80s. I can study modern art and attempt it myself, read what I want, listen to new music - jazz and classical - until I find the music in the unfamiliar.
“I have the freedom to attempt what I want to and the freedom to fail, the great gift of old age. We know that failure is not the end but the beginning.
“I sit at my drawing table to discover what my failures will reveal, where the uninstructed line will lead me, a boy at 80 enjoying the childhood my father never had.”
- - Boston Globe, 22 February 2005
We were wrong in the ‘60s about people over 30. And we are still wrong about them. It is up to us, the older generations, to set it right by refusing the false and foolish cultural imperative to deny our age and to put our collective experience and wisdom to the best use possible.