Growing Old in the Culture of Perpetual Adolescence

In 10 Colleen Carroll Campbell on 2012/08/17 at 9:11 AM

Aristophanes, the ancient Greek dramatist, compared old age to a second childhood. If writer Diana West were to update his analogy for the 21st century, she might say that it has become a second adolescence. And that, she would argue, is not a good thing.

Author of the provocative new book, “The Death of the Grown-Up,” West contends that American adults are trapped in a state of arrested development. In a nation in which the Cartoon Network has been known to attract more viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 than CNN, the average video gamester is 33 and 60-something rock stars still prance onstage in leather pants crooning about their sexual frustration, West sees more than nostalgia for the carefree pleasures of youth.  She senses a cultural shift that has elevated the decadence, aimlessness and self-absorption associated with adolescence into cornerstone virtues for all ages.

West focuses her analysis largely on indulgent parents more concerned about appearing “cool” than disciplining their children. But equally interesting is how our cult of adolescence affects the elderly.

Aging gracefully in a Peter Pan society is no easy task. Older Americans are remaining active and living longer than ever before, but they no longer enjoy immunity from our culture’s forever-young demands. In place of blatant age discrimination, there is a new ethic of exaggerated non-discrimination that says older Americans must meet the same standards of physical health, sexual allure and perpetual hipness as everyone else — or die trying.

This notion permeates publications and products aimed at the older set.  Visitors to the AARP website find ads for an elder model search and tips on losing “belly bulge” along with stories on aphrodisiacs, “hot new sex drugs” and a profile of a British biologist who regards aging as a disease to be eradicated.

Image-conscious readers who consider AARP’s bench-press guidelines too soft can find more challenging workouts in the studiously hip GeezerJock Magazine or join the growing ranks of Americans over 60 investing in pectoral implants, thigh lifts and tummy tucks.

Those hoping that old age might exempt them from the same superficial pressures that consumed them in high school will find little reassurance from the mainstream media. The older adults celebrated in today’s movies and magazines are not those who accept gracefully the trappings and limits of age but those who defy them: septuagenarians addicted to marathon running, celebrities who refuse to answer to “Grandpa” or “Grandma” when their children’s children call and surgically enhanced, scantily clad 60-something actresses who sprawl on magazine covers in sex-kitten poses. Their defiant message is clear: It’s fine to grow older, so long as you don’t think, look or act like an old person.

Some welcome this blurring of generational lines as evidence that elders are accorded equal treatment in our cult of youth. But the preoccupation with proving that Grandma’s still sexy and Grandpa’s still got game contributes to the very fixation on youthful vigor that marginalizes our elders.

It also blinds us to their unique contributions to our culture. The lives and stories of our elders remind us that today’s tragedies may become tomorrow’s triumphs and that tasks that consume us now may count for little at life’s end.  Elders can testify from experience that the pleasure of earning a few more bucks or turning a few more heads fades much sooner than the peace that comes from comforting a dying parent or living by principle, regardless of fashion.

That hard-won wisdom accrues with the passing of years. Although it can be glimpsed at any age, it is possessed fully only by those who trade the heady thrills of adolescence for the richer rewards of grown-up life.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH Thursday, Sep. 13 2007  Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television host and St. Louis-basedfellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.


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