Essay: The Boomers’ Third Act

boomer 350 x 200It was always about the numbers. Whatever we did, we did in a crowd. There were 3.4 million babies born in 1946 — a record — and by the time those last two digits had reversed, 1964, we were 76 million. We marched through our lives like an army laying siege: filling schools to the bursting, stomping through the muddy fields of Bethel Farm, rushing into cities in a land grab of gentrification, then boomeranging back to the suburbs and issuing a baby boom echo of our own. Our sheer numbers turned toys — Frisbees, skateboards, hula hoops, Slinkys, Silly Putty — into phenomena. Television was our twin, coming of age alongside us. Together — the boob tube and us — we put the mass in mass media, grabbing the attention of demographers, sociologists and marketers of every kind.

We believed first and foremost in our youth, in the power of so many young people on the planet at one time. Ian Dury’s 1977 song, “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” became our anthem. We were never going to trust anyone over 30. We got smoked pot, giggled through screenings of “Reefer Madness” and thought we had invented irony.

And when finally, against all expectations, we did turn 30, we put our own spin on that too, turning parenting into a game of one upsmanship. Though we were weaned on TV and sugar, we worked hard to wean our offspring off it, meting out both opiates by the thimbleful. We transformed strollers into status symbols, organized our children’s lives into units called “play dates,” made SAT preparation into an industry and turned the college selection process into an arms race.

Then off they went, those magnificently-bred children of ours, and suddenly, with our nests turned inside out, we started to feel old.

But it wasn’t until I went to a Steely Dan concert in my neighborhood a few years ago that it really hit me: we looked old too.

Who were these people — lumpy, gray and stuffed into unbecoming jeans — trudging breathlessly up the stairs of the Wellmont to hear the band that defined mid-1970’s cool? A Brad Pitt ponytail here or there would have been perfectly acceptable, or granny spectacles a la Melanie Mayron. But these people, my peers, the people who’d been outside tossing frisbees when I first heard Dr. Wu, how had they become so fat and old? And, awful to contemplate, was I that fat and old myself?

I can almost see the Millennials and Gen X-ers rolling their eyes, as they have been for years. Yes, we’re old. Google confirms it. If you do an image search on Baby Boomers, what do you see? Not the schoolchildren of “Duck and Cover,” not the hippies of Woodstock, not even the attractive whiners of “Thirtysomething.” What you see are the white-haired denizens of Cialis commercials.

Yes, we’re old; the very youngest of us turned 50 on New Year’s Eve. Old Baby Boomers. It feels to me, if not an oxymoron, then at least epically unfair.

And that, my friends, is now my subject: The myth that plays out over and over again in this country, from the Flappers to the Boomers and eventually to the Millennials, who will one day also outgrow their skinny jeans. But particularly as it applies to my generation.

Because I truly believe, even as our senescence becomes the bookend to our adolescence, that we Baby Boomers will transform old age, returning to the group houses where we roomed in our 20’s, starting disruptive media empires, or going gypsy. Or maybe it’s slightly less dramatic. Like my friends Bob and Anne-Marie deciding to sell their house in the suburbs of New Jersey and move to Maine rather than Florida. Or my four friends (Liz, Lisa, Amy and Patricia) who went back to school in their 40’s or 50’s to become therapists.

It’s partly a numbers game. We’re one out of four Americans, and we have a whole second adulthood to play with, as Jane Fonda said in her TED talk, “Life’s third act.”

Maybe it’s our insufferable entitlement, or a sense of our special destiny.

And maybe we’re just a bunch of babies.

Debbie Galant, co-founder of Baristanet and co-editor for many years, has started Midcentury/Modern, a new collection about baby boomers, on Medium.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. We aren’t old, as old is way down the line yet. If we reach our 80’s maybe, until we get there, and will need to re-define the line between mature and truly old.

  2. Great post. As one of those aging Baby Boomers, I totally understand how disconcerting it is to suddenly realize we are that “certain age” that old time writers used to refer to, as in “women of a certain age.” I have started to be shocked by what I look like in pictures… Who IS that older woman? OMG, that’s me! I do hope you are right, Debbie, that we will reinvent old age – because what I’ve seen of it so far in my observation hasn’t been that fun. I love the idea of the group homes! Why not hang out with a bunch of your best friends in a big house somewhere that you all enjoy, and when the need arises, you can hire aides and share the cost!

  3. Thanks for your comments. I just read the story in the Times Sunday Review, “The Liberation of Growing Old,” which gets into the history of ageism. Its a tough battle, internally and externally. Anyway, if you enjoyed this essay, please go over to the link to Midcentury/Modern, follow the collection and recommend some stories. Or share them on Facebook.

  4. Great essay. The group homes thing is not that far-fetched. One of my close friends and I actually discussed this, and not as a joke. We worry about outliving our money. New Jersey was recently given the distinction of being the state with the largest exodus of people and I can’t say I am surprised. It’s very difficult to live in NJ as a boomer (or senior), unless you have boatloads of money. And, even then, what do you get? Five months of the most miserable weather, congested cities and suburbs, some of the highest taxes in the nation, and Chris Christie.

    That being said, there are some good things about turning older: senior discounts (of which I have found the starting age can range from 50 to 65), having the time to go back to school, and wholeheartedly pursuing interests that once got put on the back burner due to work and other obligations. If you have children, they are likely young adults now and are learning to take care of themselves. And, most importantly, saying, “I am too old for that shit,” when you don’t feel like doing something!

    The most important thing, however, is good health. Without it, very little else matters. That is why when I wish people New Year’s greetings, I always lead with “Have a healthy…”

    I wish my Baristanet family a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

  5. EXCELLENT!!! As long as Pugsley and Wednesday are included in the ranks….I don’t mind being classified as a baby boomer.

    Happy New Year!!!

  6. Ugh…. Now this Gen X’er has to listen while Boomer “reclaim” growing old?

    I like the idea of all of y’all moving into Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and leaving us alone with all your “profound punditry.”

    I know. It’s Crazy. With every year, you age. Crazy.

    Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

    (*Love Medium)

  7. “What you see are the white-haired denizens of Cialis commercials.” Don’t forget about the silverfoxes pulling their pickups out of the mud with workhorses! I’m from the generation after the boomers and I will be very happy if you reinvent getting old. I remember singing Christmas carols at a drab retirement homes when I was in elementary school and the place looked and smelled like a hospital waiting room. If your money and numbers improve that situation I’m all for it. Don’t forget your Steely Dan posters.

  8. My Golden Girls home will be on the beach in Baja. I’m thinking 3 shared baths, 5 bedrooms and large kitchen that opens onto a palapa covered outdoor living space with a pool and a small staff of handsome young men to cook and massage our feet. No Steely Dan posters, we can listen to contemporary tracks along with the punk oldies from the 70’s. If we share the cost of the purchase of about $600k ( that’s $125k per person) the rest of the expenses for food, electricity and hired help should come to about $500 – $800 per month per person. That includes electricity, internet, potable water, food, and dinner out once a week. Plus lots of tequila, beer and wine.

  9. Glad to be a boomer, and it’s good I found my glasses so I could write this. Now if I can only find my hearing aid, I can listen to some old Pete Seeger tunes.

  10. The frantic mind ties itself to a specific generation. Those of us who have been here many times before feel generationless.

    The newbies wail & whine for stop signs and bump outs and a myriad of life saving devices with an endless parade of dos & don’ts and an extreme lust for cronuts.

    acquiesce to your shimmering fragile existence….Chalk it up to a good rack of nine ball with a few scratches before the end game.

  11. Very funny observation about the Wellmont Steely Dan show .

    I went to a concert there last year featuring a very famous Rock and Roll legend, and at one point, I happened to observe the backs of all the heads sitting in front of me….. felt like I was sitting in a theatre full of monks.

    Thirty five years ago, that would have been a sea of long hair.

  12. The Wellmont observation reminds me of what the studio 54 “One More Night” party was like two years ago… It was almost better NOT to go… or to see that…. the only familiar face was Donald Trump… he apparently thought that I was a familiar face too and kept standing next to me in the huge crowd of people who were all to young to have ever been there before…

    In getting older I see something much better and unexpected happining…. all of the workouts are adding up….and I’m in much better shape fitness wise than i ever was before…who knows whats going on inside… but at least from the outside… I feel that I look much much better now than ten years ago…and much much much better than twenty years ago.

    As HRH Diana used to say…”at a certain age you have to choose between the COW or the GOAT…. if you keep your body fit and slim (no sugar, alcohol or white flour)…. you get the face of a goat… and if you want to maintain a nice young face (relaxing and enjoying the pleasures of fine cusine), you get a body like a cow.” I prefer the goat and lots and lots of Witch Hazel…it seems to work…(oh well) a little!

  13. Thanks for reminding me, Frank, that Diana was a Baby Boomer. I see possibilities for an essay there.

    profwilliams, so happy to encounter your mockery again. Really. It’s been too long. I’m sure I deserve it. Come over to Medium, since you like it, follow me, and add your comments right in the offensive sentences.

    sandybeach, love the image of the nursing home with Steely Dan posters. jerseygurl, can I make a reservation? And PAZ, congratulations on your enlightenment.

    Now trending on Midcentury/Modern: my odyssey with Lumosity. Thanks for reading. I miss you guys.

  14. Will do, Deb (surprised I haven’t seen you there b/f).

    But don’t confused a Gen-Xers (we’re approaching 50, you know!) ribbing at an older, Boomer sibling for mockery. Had it not been for Boomers, my love (and VAST knowledge) of 70’s music would be as great as it is.

    Likewise, watching those of the ME generation turn inward after the promise of the 60’s was instructive: We began inward (slackers!), but now see the world as our home.

    Still, together, we can share in our disdain for Millennials, yes? Even though they will turn out better than both of our generations.

    Sorry, my beeper just went off.

  15. Group home, I can see it now, Debbie, Frank Gg, Fran and myself. “House of Art and Random Effing Creations” will we pay rent or just move from one giant mansion to the next? Frank always has one or two on loan.

    I am the baby of the group and FYI I will not be changing any of your diapers.

  16. LOL…. instead of Art & Creativity, I’m finding serenity in Vacuum cleaning…. I LOVE doing that….also working out with free weights….we could have a gym/orthopedic emergency room for our group home!

  17. Brooklyn? i’ve only been there about three times in my whole life and always get lost for hours. They would have to put out a Silver Alert every time I go out the door! Free weights I’m sure I could always do…. hopefully I would be able to remember where they are.

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