Better with age
Baby Boomers are redefining what it means to act their age, embracing the next stage of life as active, engaged members of the community – all while remaining fit and fabulous
Ahem – maybe I don’t hope I die before I get old, after all. Maybe I’ll rock on, dye my hair instead of die, move to Thailand or take up skydiving. I might go volunteering or backpacking or become a Grey Nomad in a Winnebago. I might try anything, really, rather than stay at home and turn into an old granny or grandpa like your grandma used to be.
Welcome to the reinvention of middle-age. Welcome to the Baby Boomers on their reluctant way to old age, the largest population bump of the 20th century, who overturned society once in the ‘60s and are about to do it again.
They will not go quietly into that good night: there are more than seven million Australians aged between 50 and 75 – and more on the way – and life spans increased by 25 years over the past century. Longevity is predicted to keep steadily rising because of medical breakthroughs: if the average life expectancy at birth for women born in the 1920s was only 63, today’s 60-year-old women – and men – have never been healthier.
A life span was once three score and 10 years, making a 35-year-old middle-aged. But when is middle-age if the average life span is 90 or 100? Watch out: daddy-o might have lost his hair, mama might have bingo arms (or not – she might be a botoxed gym bunny). Whatever, those groovers are going to rock the boat all over again.
According to data by leading global market research company Nielsen, Baby Boomers (born in the post-WWII baby boom of 1946-64) control more than 53 per cent of Australia’s wealth and are responsible for more than half of all consumer spending, buying 80 per cent of all leisure travel.
And yet – again according to Nielsen – advertising and media companies and marketers continue to focus on an outdated bias towards the 18 to 49-year-old market, considering 50 to be the point at which consumers are “past it”. Popular culture reflects the idea that anyone over 50 is somehow one of life’s losers.
But Baby Boomers are the protest generation. They ushered in sexual liberation and women’s liberation. What’s the bet that ageing liberation is next? Maybe advertising and media companies, marketers – and governments – had better start changing their minds about them. Fast.
Sociologists and policy analysts and researchers Don and Patricia Edgar have spent much of their working lives examining Australia’s changing social landscape. Don was the founding director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and Patricia the founding director of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. Both are 80 and they’ve been married 56 years.
Based in Melbourne, they’re ambassadors for the National Ageing Research Institute and have just published Peak:
Reinventing Middle Age. “To give you a bit of background,” says Patricia, in a telephone interview from Melbourne, “I wrote the book In Praise of Ageing a couple of years ago and talked to women – many of whom were over 90. Everywhere I went, the most frequent question people asked was, ‘What are we going to do with this longer life span?’.
“We don’t drop dead in our 60s anymore. We need to talk about restructuring a whole life, and the idea that you’re regarded as old when you’re 50 needs to be overhauled. HR managers in the workforce looking at people over 50 thinking they’re not the people they want to employ – that’s got to change. We’re effectively the fittest group of people who’ve ever lived and we’re going to have to work – and want to work – much longer. There’s an awful lot of us – we have to restructure the way we look at education, working life, families, health systems – all these issues need to be addressed.”
Patricia argues that governments – by increasing pension ages and encouraging longer working lives – need to follow through in other areas. “In practical ways, governments will need to think of education in terms of lifelong learning, not just as something you go into after finishing school,” she says. “A job for life will no longer exist, people will need to keep replanning and relearning throughout their lives, workplaces will need to be more adaptable – things such as parent-care leave as well as maternity leave introduced, for example.”
She argues that in Australia we’re used to age being discussed as if it were a burden – not just on younger generations but on governments – when it would be more constructive to think of Australia as a “middle-aged country”.
Monash University historian Graeme Davison also argues that ageism is deep in the Australian psyche and is a particularly Australian characteristic, fuelled by Australia’s perception of itself as a “young society”. This is partly because of the way the country was established: colonial Australia was overwhelmingly peopled by the young, and for many years afterwards constantly contrasted with the “Old Country” of Britain.
But now, because of better health care, exercise and diet, ageing Australians are healthier than ever (an Australian Bureau of Statistics household survey in 2011-12 reported that 72 per cent of Australians aged 65 and over rated their health as “excellent”). Patricia Edgar suggests it’s time Australia radically rewrote its definition of what it considers to be “old”. “You’re still in your peak years in your 50s, 60s and 70s,” she says. “Today, you’re not really getting ‘old’ until you’re well into your 80s. We need to totally change what we consider middle-aged.”
We might also need to change how we think middle-aged and older Australians should live. Should grandma and grandpa
“People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation) Just because we get around (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation) Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation) I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ‘bout my generation)”
– The Who, My Generation