Baby boomers and ageing

There were two interesting articles in The Observer last weekend: one by Tracy McVeigh was about the rise of the ‘silver splitters’ (those couples who divorce in later life); 1 and the other by Yvonne Roberts was about the possibility that the baby boomers, the so-called ‘have-it-all’ generation, may be facing a bleak future of loneliness and ill-health as they enter old age. 2  The background to both these articles was a report just published by Relate and New Philanthropy Capital which looks at the importance of relationships in later life and the challenges that face such relationships.3 And then, of course, there was The Rolling Stones at Glastonbury……. the spirit of the 1960s incarnate. 4

The Rolling Stones also incarnate something else – something which is so very ‘1960s’.5.  This is the idea of eternal youth; of defying ageing; of never having to grow old, become seriously ill and die.  And this brings us back to the two articles and the report I referred to just now.

Roberts begins her article by stating:

To some, it must have been a very long time coming but here it is at last. That smug, gold-plated, bloated slice of the population whose main preoccupation appears to be, on the one hand, continually bragging about their unique birthright of rock’n’roll, flower power, feminism and the sexual revolution while on the other grabbing jobs, income and bread from the mouths of their young, are running into trouble.

The point that Roberts is making, and much of this draws on what appears to be her rather selective reading of the Relate/NPC report, is that many ‘baby boomers’ struggle with the idea of ageing.  At one point the report suggests that many people of this generation are ‘in denial’ about getting old and all this may entail, i.e. loneliness, increasing ill health, bereavement and, of course, the certainty of death.

Judging by the number of negative comments following Roberts’ article, a lot of readers, many of whom are self-proclaimed baby boomers, disagree.  In other words, they believe that the rock’n’roll circus can continue, presumably into their seventies, eighties and even their nineties.   Others are more muted in their response, and whilst agreeing with the general thrust of Roberts’ argument, blame this on globalisation, the erosion of the welfare state, and their baby boomer colleagues ‘selling out’ to the corporate world, marriage and mortgages.

McVeigh’s article highlights one particular phenomena which appears to correlate with the baby boom generation, and is also mentioned in the Relate/NPC report.  This is the fact that although the overall divorce rate in the UK is declining, the rate amongst people in  their 50s and 60s continues to rise.   There appear to be a number of reasons for this, and one may well be that this is the only age group that can actually afford to get divorced nowadays.  However, a more common reason seems to be that couples are reaching their (late) middle age and realise that they no longer wish to spend the rest of their lives with the same person, bearing in mind that an increasing number of people can now expect to live well into their eighties and beyond.  In many cases it also seems that children were the only thing keeping the relationship together in the first place, and once they have left home (though nowadays this is by no means a foregone conclusion) the couple are left realising that they have nothing in common.

But what is it that may (or may not) face the baby boomers as they enter old age?  As mentioned above, the Relate/NPC cites the possibility of loneliness;  ill health (both physical and mental);  complex family set ups (‘blended families’ to use Roberts’ term) which are the result of second and third (or more) marriages and which may not be necessarily be relied upon to provide support in one’s older age; and a more general difficulty in facing up to growing deterioration and, ultimately, death.

Of course these are problems that can trouble people of any age, especially if they have a long-term health condition or a life-threatening illness (or if they live in a war zone, or an area of extreme poverty).  So why would they be more of a problem in older age?    The key point here is that with age there is a decreasing probability that such problems will be overcome or circumvented in some way.   As people grow older they are faced with an ever shrinking temporal horizon, and with this, an ever increasing realisation of mortality and the fragility of life.

Perhaps another way of looking at this it to say that in old age the individual is increasingly confronted with the reality of what was always already there for them.   In other words we might look at a person’s life (baby boomer or not) as a strategy, or series of strategies, for trying to avoid facing the inevitable, i.e. that one is born to die – and sometimes in a slow, unpleasant fashion.  Linked to this is the fact that many people spend their entire lives searching for their ‘lost’ youth, a ‘lost’ paradise where there is no pain, suffering or death.

Of course, this desire for eternal youth/eternal life is not restricted to those of a certain generation; we could probably write a whole human history in these terms.  However, perhaps the ‘baby boomers’ are the first generation who, en masse, actually believe it is possible to stay ‘forever young’.  As Roberts points out later on in her article, this generation has defined itself as being prepared to redefine the ‘rules’ of being whatever age they happen to be, and there is no reason to think this will stop as they enter older age.

What are the implications for psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, especially at the level of clinical practice, of an ageing generation who do not want to get old?  One of the problems, of course, is that ultimately, there is no ‘cure’ for death. 6   So there seems little that a therapist or analyst can do to help their clients ‘redefine’ or ‘reinterpret’ the reality of ageing, at least not in the longer term, order to make it seem a more ‘positive’ experience; in fact this could be seen as simply colluding in the individual’s denial of reality.

However, this is not necessarily the end of the story.  As I suggested earlier, old age cannot be separated from the rest of a person’s history; in fact, in many ways it can be seen as the realisation (in some quasi-Hegelian fashion) of a person’s life, of their whole history.   Furthermore, each person will experience getting old and dying in their own, unique way, and therefore there is no ‘pro-forma’ way of deciding in advance how an individual will engage in the analytic process.  At the same time, however,  there are, perhaps, a number of questions that the individual might like to begin exploring.  For example, what old age and getting old means for them; what death means for them; how they view old age and death in the light of their history, and in the light of their intimate and family relationships; and, conversely, how they view their history and their relationships in the context of old age and death.

Notes and references

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  4. Or perhaps, as one unsympathetic commentator put it, it was more like one of the those historical re-enactment society events where the participants dress the part, perform all the right actions … and yet,  everyone knows, deep down, that this is all fake. []
  5. Even though, of course, the ‘baby-boom’ generation actually spanned a period of almost twenty years,  from 1946 to 1964, so those in the latter part missed the ‘sixties’ altogether, and were only just about coming of age in the late 1970s or even the early 1980s []
  6. Although one might argue that death is the ultimate ‘cure’ for life and all its ills. []