When my parents (who were part of America’s so-called “Greatest Generation”) were in their 50s, they seemed much older than the 50-plus people I know today. American society was not so youth conscious then; there were no nubile Calvin Klein faces in magazine ads because teenagers and people in their 20s had not yet been enshrined as humanity’s ideal age.
In my parents’ era, older people looked and acted very old, and they dressed very old.
The men – except for the occasional dandy – had little taste in fashion. While they may have used lotions like Vaseline Hair Tonic, the men in the 1950s and ‘60s looked 45 by the time they were 26. They wore baggy trousers, smoked and drank to excess, and rarely exercised outside of playing golf or backyard croquette. The women of that era followed a similar course with their fox fur wraps, mink coats, and pill box hats with netting in the front.
Baby boomers – the children of the ’60s who gifted the world with the sexual revolution and Woodstock – revolutionized the idea of what it means to be older. As most glitzy magazines would have us believe, boomers normalized the use of vitamins, plastic surgery, Botox, Viagra, and regular workouts at home or in gyms, thereby causing many to believe that 60 is really the new 40 and that 70 is the new 50, and so forth.
The mostly liberal Democrat-leaning Boomers also came up with the concept of ageism as a form of discrimination. Ageism joined racism and sexism as major societal sins.
Ageism, of course, is defined as discrimination or negative stereotyping based on chronological age. The concept was mainstreamed with the help of Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995), the founder of the Gray Panthers, an organization devoted to the rights of the elderly. Kuhn founded the Gray Panthers after being forced to retire from a job when she turned 65. That experience led to Kuhn becoming a leader in the fight against age discrimination.
And fight she did, especially with her motto, “Age and Youth in Action,” a philosophy that encouraged older (usually widowed) women to have relationships with much younger men. Kuhn herself lived with a young man in his twenties while in her eighties in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
After Kuhn’s death, the Gray Panthers gradually dwindled and disappeared from the scene. In the 1970s it had over 100,000 members in more than 30 states. It was a time when Kuhn made regular appearances on programs like The Phil Donahue Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
A recent New York Times piece on Kuhn put it this way:
Kuhn and the Gray Panthers have been so forgotten that it’s almost difficult to recall a time when advocacy groups for older people pursued a broader vision of a just society. But the need for intergenerational alliances not just to save Social Security, but also to achieve health care for all, to battle climate change, to combat race- and gender-based violence, to defy ageism and to push for a more equitable and humane economy is urgent. Old people have been organized radicals before; they can be so again.
The Times’ comment pretty much summarizes why the Gray Panthers faded into obscurity: the organization did itself in because it embraced a host of umbrella leftist causes.
Climate change and gender-based violence have nothing to do with the problems of aging.
Or do they?
According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), they do. AARP, founded in 1958 as a non-partisan non-profit, claims it is non-partisan because it does not donate directly to the Democrat party. Yet the organization explicitly supports causes embraced by progressive Democrats, including the far-out notion that climate change is responsible for the rise of infectious diseases worldwide.
In 2012, AARP endorsed Obamacare. The Wall Street Journal at that time called attention to this fact and reported that at least 71 emails were exchanged between AARP and the White House.
Most people who join AARP do so because of the organization’s hotel and motel discounts and are blithely unaware of its alignment with progressive causes. In the Biden era, of course, these progressive causes have been pushed so extensively that most of them appear to be thoroughly mainstream and uncontested.
While conservative alternative organizations to AARP exist, like the Association of Mature American Citizens, AARP is the federally-funded market standard bearer. Yet one could also say that AARP is the direct descendent of Maggie Kuhn’s Gray Panthers, although dressed up a little differently and mainstreamed for maximum potential.
Maggie Kuhn’s work undoubtedly helped change some of the language surrounding age. One thinks how outdated refrains like “old geezer,” “old fogy,” “old maid and, to a much lesser extent, “dirty old man” have fallen out of the official lexicon. All of these words point to negative stereotypes and negative connotations. (Why, for instance, is it any worse to be a dirty old man than it is to be a dirty young man?)
Scientists say that by the middle of this century we may see 20- to 40-year leaps in the average life span, thanks to advanced drugs, biotherapies, and the cure of many degenerative diseases. While that may be good news to many, what does that mean in terms of quality of life issues?
What sense would it make if the world were full of healthy 90-year-olds walking around with nothing to do? Living longer in a world where the national economy continues to worsen and where personal finances plummet, would be a gamble.
Bioconservatives like Daniel Callahan and Leon Kass take a dim view of biotechnological progress that could increase the human life span to 150.
Callahan believes that “There is no human social good coming from the conquest of death.” Kass, the controversial former head of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, says that “the finitude of human life is a blessing for every human individual, whether he knows it or not.”
San Francisco author Lillian Rubin, who died at age 90 in 2014, wrote that she was sick of the mainstream media singing the praises of the joys of old age. In her book, 60 On Up: The Truth About Aging in America (Beacon Press), Ms. Rubin writes that because people are living longer they are possibly facing 35 years or more of retirement.
“And it ain’t all gonna be a walk on the beach,” she insists. “I can hardly remember a time getting together with friends in their late 60s and older, when they weren’t talking about getting tired, bored with what they were doing, what they were going to do in retirement…”
As for the ads in the ubiquitous AARP magazine that most Americans begin receiving on their 50th birthdays, Ms. Rubin says they are among the worst offenders, “featuring thin, barely wrinkled, happy gray-haired couples on the beach. Come on,” she wrote, “this is not life!”
In AARP’s world, it may be a life, especially if that gray-haired couple are card-carrying Democrats.