Aging in America

We are perhaps the most death-denying generation in human history

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Life is arithmetic. There are only three certainties all of us face: we’re born, we live, we die. How many years one lives during the interval is a mortal crapshoot, but most people would agree on one thing: they’d like as many years as possible.

Are Americans Uniquely Afraid to Grow Old

By 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of the population will be of retirement age. By 2034, seniors will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. Confronting the physical, cognitive, and emotional frailties of aging, not to mention the cold reality that with advanced age comes death, will be the everyday experience of one out of every five adults.

There is an entire branch of psychology built around geriatric thinking, dealing not just with such clinical conditions as dementia, but also the simple business of fear of—and resistance to—aging. This resistance often leads to youth-preserving strategies such as cosmetic surgery (with 15.5 million procedures performed in the U.S. in 2020); extreme sports like septuagenarian marathons; and magical thinking (Sixty is the new fifty!). But apart from our fear of death—which, admittedly, is hard to get around—why exactly do we Americans resist aging so much? Afterall, it’s a privilege that is denied to many. And it comes with a bundle of advantages like wisdom, respect, and for some, a comfortable retirement. So, what is it exactly that makes us all so age-averse?

Sheldon Solomon (professor of psychology at Skidmore College) and, at age 69, a Baby Boomer himself, suggests that a uniquely privileged background (compared to the rest of the world) can leave a baby boomer with the feeling that his frailties which accompany the aging process are not inevitable rites of human passage, but somehow negotiable.

“We are perhaps the most death-denying generation in human history, having grown up in surreal conditions of modernity,” Solom says. “Our parents knew multiple wars and depression. We, on the other hand, saw the golden age of the American Dream, the last generation of Americans certain to do better than their parents in a world that seemed to be on a certain road to progress. After all, we hit golf balls on the moon. “We have DoorDash and the internet, so obviously the next step is eternal youth.”

Reaching the American Dream was especially pronounced in one slice of the American demographic, but in fairness, aversion to death—and the dream of eternal life—is something that is written deeply into the human psyche. Centuries of fables speak of immortality charms; Ponce de Leon (perhaps apocryphally) searched for the fountain of youth; and religions promise eternal paradise after the brief passage of earthly life is done.

In the 1980s, Thomas Pyszczynski, 68, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, was part of a group of researchers who developed the terror management theory of facing death which, as its name implies, addresses the way we somehow get through our days knowing that somewhere at the end of the existential line, lies the utter annihilation of self. That’s a knowledge that other animals are spared, but it’s one that both haunts and focuses our thinking.

“We have this evolved imperative to stay alive,” Pyszczynski once said. “The awareness of death creates the potential for terror. As a result, we use the same intellectual abilities that make us aware of death to manage our fear of it.”  It’s kind of an oxymoron.

We humans do that in one of two ways. The first is to cultivate a belief in literal immortality. “We detoxify death with the hope of living in an afterlife—like reincarnation,” Pyszczynski says. “Every culture has its own version of afterlife beliefs.” The other, less direct means is symbolic immortality. That’s what people get by being part of something greater than themselves—something that will last past their demise, like having children or creating works of art, or building buildings. We leave a mark behind that ensures the world—or at least our families—will remember us.

Americans are no different from others in leaning both on faith in an afterlife and producing good works in this life to comfort the fear of our own mortality. But as Solomon says, our culture—and particularly the Boomer segment—is pushing back against those old ways, too.

“I think we just never got out of the Disneyland idea that life was/is always going to get better,” Pyszczynski says. “We find it inconceivable that we will die so we’re trying to buy our way out of it—you know, have your head frozen; get out of your body and onto or into the Google Cloud; or hope that we get the pill that’s going to keep us around another couple of centuries. For example, only 58% of Boomers aged 53 to 71 have written wills or other estate planning documents, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). What’s more, of the top 38 anti-aging start-up labs worldwide, 28 are in the U.S., reports the website MedicalStartups.”

Pyszczynski agrees that there is a particular anti-aging imperative in America. Traditional Asian cultures, for example, are inclined to venerate the elderly for their decades of acquired insight and wisdom. The U.S., a younger country with an equally young ethos, does not show the same respect. This is especially true in politics, for example: witness the alternating handwringing and bomb throwing about whether a President, at 80 or older, is too old to serve now, much less seek another term. By contrast, the Dalai Lama, at 87, remains a revered figure in the Eastern world, with his advanced years seen as one of his great, transcendent strengths.

Our culture has always relied on the new, Pyszczynski says, on new discoveries and new ideas, whereas other cultures look back more at the elders and the ancients and see the world as fine the way it was many years ago.

Boomers have been a unique force multiplier in the rejection of the old and celebration of the new—and in some ways this comes from a disarmingly idealistic place. “There was the rebellion of the 60s,” says Pyszczynski. “There was the opposition to the Vietnam war, the push for desegregation, the sense that young people were going to make things better. The ‘Who’ sang ‘Hope I die before I get old.’ I don’t think they would agree with that sentiment anymore, however.” Maybe not, but the exaltation of youth has stayed with the Boomer mentality. The values of being young that were so prominent when we were growing up make it a little harder for us to age gracefully. For example, 70% of Baby Boomers have failed to save adequately for retirement, according to MarketWatch—a stage in life that many Boomers felt they could put off indefinitely.

Gracefully or not, of course, aging is happening—incrementally maybe, but inevitably. Death awaits all of us inexorably at the end of this great arc of life. We can embrace this truth or fight against it. Too many Americans—especially those in the current senior cohort—are selecting not to go gentle into the night but rather to burn and rage at the close of the day; “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”, Dylan Thomas once wrote.

But those who don’t rage at the end, those who accept that dying will always be the table stakes of getting to live in the first place, will meet their end with a greater equanimity—and a greater sense of peace.

But I fully understand and appreciate that peacefully embracing one’s inevitable demise is exceedingly difficult, to say the least.

Until next time,

Alan