Caution: Turning 50 could be hazardous to your sense of identity
In our youth-obsessed culture, turning 50 is not so much a cause for celebration as a cautionary tale. Suddenly, and without warning, you are identified, labeled and categorized as old. More, as author Julia Neuberger points out in her book Not Dead Yet, all of us from 50 onward are lumped into one big, dusty ‘old’ file, even though we “couldn’t be more different than one another.”
It’s curious. You’d think getting older or even being old would be seen as a good thing – a privilege or, given some of our histories, a stroke of luck – but strangely, according to society, it’s something to be avoided or better yet ostracized. This may explain why everyone from 50 to 105 is lumped in the same group or rather the same boat and set adrift or cast off (think Inuit fables and ice flows). An exaggeration, possibly, but not a big one.
The fact is, after 50, it’s not so much that you start to feel invisible as you begin to be treated that way.
The signs are everywhere. Politicians and the press fret over the looming ‘pension time bomb’ when polls actually show the great majority of us plan to continue to work well past retirement age or to never stop working at all. Media headlines blame the entire Boomer generation for eating up jobs for youth while the numbers of 50-plus unemployed are equally staggering yet seldom if ever reported. Manufacturers and marketers (hyper-focused on the age-old 18- to 49-year-old demographic) only seek us out if they’re selling something they think we want – not the cars or alcohol or technology or fashion they spend billions to pitch at others, but the vitamins, medication, insurance policies, retirement homes, reclining beds and funeral plots they think we need. And although we make up the largest segment of television viewers and more than one-third of the movie-going public, entertainment on the whole is rarely produced for ‘mature audiences.’
It’s as if they don’t see us or, if they do, they don’t have a very clear picture of who we are (not that surprising given our remote coordinates out here on the ice flow). But why focus on anyone in their 50s, 60s or older when, as far as they can see, we’re all about failing faculties and diminishing returns?
If they actually paid attention, they’d see how blind they are.
There are 78-million ‘Baby Boomers’ in the U.S., 9.8 million in Canada, 17 million in the UK, and with our peers around the globe – along with our elders – we are expected to number 800-million people on the planet over the age of 65 by 2025. Not so invisible.
And diminishing returns? Take North America as an example. In Canada, those aged 50 to 64 have the greatest net worth, while Canadians older than 65 have more disposable income than any other age group, and all of them represent the largest voter turnout (90 percent show up at the ballot box). In the U.S., those older than 50 currently account for the majority of the nation’s wealth and, by 2015, will represent almost half of the American population. And when it comes to buying power, those over the age of 50 outspend younger adults by $1-trillion annually. Yes, $1-trillion (and you can bet it’s not spent on reclining beds or funeral plots).
Given our strength and numbers, it’s little wonder Neuberger – Baroness Neuberger, rabbi, social reformer, Member of the British House of Lords and advisor to the UK government – felt it was time to declare “a call to arms.” In Not Dead Yet, she sets out a 10-point manifesto for change. Number 10: Launch a Gray Panthers Movement, Get Angry, Force Change to Happen. “What we need now is to focus that anger, not just by expecting politicians and professionals to change – though they surely must – but by setting up businesses, services, mutual networks, and new designs for living.”
The gauntlet has been thrown. And, really, who better to take up the challenge?
We may be counter to culture’s current ideal, but – when you think about it – this may work to our advantage. We are the original counter culture. We set out to live by the adage ‘question authority’ and we’ve questioned every supposed cultural norm thus far. We fought bigotry and racism. We fought sexism. We fought against war and for gay rights. And we still have fight left in us. Good thing, because apparently we still have something worth fighting. Ageism.