Arts & Events
In 1969 Theodore Roszak’s book The Making of a Counter Culture hit the bestseller lists and won awards for its optimistic analysis of middle-class, non-conformist, anti–Vietnam War students of the post-war-generation “baby boom.” Forty years and 20 books later, he takes up the present-day challenges and opportunities of that same generation in his new books The Making of an Elder Culture.
If the central historical fact of the postwar boomers was their sheer numbers, the central historical fact they exhibit today, writes Roszak, is their sheer longevity. He reminds us that when the Social Security Act of 1937 was passed, life expectancy was only a couple of years beyond 65, the age at which a worker could begin collecting the unprecedented federal old age pension. The lengthening of old-age in advanced industrial countries today is such that, as Roszak told his students (at Cal State, East Bay), they are facing a new reality—their old age will be a lot longer than their youth.
This is good news and bad news, says Roszak. The bad news first: Boomers who in the 1960s “rushed to the support of every exploited minority on the scene” now are “joining the ranks of the world’s most maligned and victimized class.”
Gaining and keeping benefits like Social Security and Medicare have always been “a struggle against business leaders, political conservatives, and free-market economists” spreading propaganda about “greedy geezers” robbing the young. The good news? Roszak asserts that every fight made by elders to keep and expand entitlements can and must be seen as a fight to expand them to all sectors of the United States, the richest country in the world, which—despite the ranting of conservatives—can afford them, if we make the right choices.
Instead of gauging America’s wealth by the gross domestic product (GDP), which includes the manufacture of cigarettes and weapons and the building of prisons, he demands a new standard, the NLE (National Life Expectancy), factoring in “quality of life. We would then be able to say that in a society where the NLE is improving, true wealth is being created.”
These newly gained years of old age, says Roszak, enable boomers to complete the reforms stymied by the conservative backlash of the 1980s and 1990s. Boomers can—as they did in their youth—help others in the larger society while helping themselves. But “we have no precedent for an insurgent older generation. If anything, the stereotype for the senior years faces in the opposite direction, toward stodginess and passivity.”
Roszak cites the Gray Panthers as an exception. A more recently founded exception to the stodgy stereotype (not mentioned by Roszak) is our local Grandmothers Against the War, started five years ago by boomer and “pre-boomer” women whose activism, in some cases, goes all the way back to anti-nuclear protests of the 1950s. GAW welcomes “all grandmotherly—that is, caring—people of all ages and sexes” to join them—at whatever level of activism suits the present state of their health and vitality—some on the picket lines, some on the phone. Such inclusionary anti-war efforts answer Roszak’s call to action.
Nevertheless, I confess to being less optimistic than Roszak about repairing the broad social, psychic and economic damage of the Nixon-through-Bush decades. Perhaps that is why I find the heart of Roszak’s book in the later, more personal chapters, in which Roszak describes insights gained during minor mishaps and major threats of his own old age.
For example, while boarding a plane, he is suddenly forced to redefine what constitutes a “manly” attitude (his own) as his luggage is casually swung up and into an overhead compartment by a young female flight attendant after his own attempt has failed.
Even more instructive (to put it mildly) are the insights gained as he survives his first near-fatal illness. Lessons learned and insights gained in such major crises were rare in earlier generations when medical technology was less well equipped to snatch elders back from the brink of death—with faculties and analytical powers intact. Such recoveries, and the mind-altering insights accompanying them, may not be as sociologically dramatic as some political actions and reactions, but may deepen the understanding and empowerment of all people, young and old, in ways we have not anticipated.
Roszak reminds us that, “Wisdom is the result of examined experience.” Long-lived elders can embody and impart hard-earned wisdom to take us closer to fulfilling an old truth: “The world does not belong to the ruthless and cunning few but to all of us—to the poets and artist as much as to the entrepreneurs, to the weak and infirm as much as to those blessed with health and agility, to the meek as well as the bold. As they take possession of the entitlements that promise them health and independence, it will be elders who must make that case for their society as a whole.”
The Making of an Elder Culture
by Theodore Roszak
(2009, New Society Publishers, paper, $18.95)