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

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