LONDON – 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.
As newspaper headlines told us last week: “Baby boomers face a lonely future.” According to “Who Will Love Me When I’m 64?,” a report published by the U.K. relationship charity Relate and the think tank, New Philanthropy Capital consultancy, the over-50s, unsurprisingly, rate health, financial security and strong relationships soundly — but many are ill prepared for the significant transitions that aging brings. These include retirement, loss of income, loss of status and ill health. And these changes, in turn, have an impact on spouses and friends resulting, for some, in an isolated and difficult older age.
For the baby boomers, as we all know, counter-culture Cupid fired his arrows in a variety of directions. Among those born between 1946 and 1964, divorce flourished for the first time; cohabitation became the norm and fidelity was for many no longer seen as an essential part of a relationship. In addition, women could earn a living and pay their own way while the stigma attached to being either a divorcee or a thirtysomething spinster evaporated. The bars on the matrimonial cage were removed, and many a canary fled.
But, according to Ruth Sutherland of Relate, that also means now, in latter life, baby boomers face “a looming crisis … totally overlooked by government.” They may have fewer intact relationships and a thinner financial cushion on which to look for support when they become vulnerable.
According to the Relate-NPC report, while the number of divorces is falling in every age group, the number of “silver splitters” is rising. In the late 1970s, a third of marriages ended in divorce before the 50th wedding anniversary. By 2005, that had risen to more than 45 percent while cohabitation has an even higher rate of attrition. One in three children will see their parents separate. “Blended families” including step-relationships add to the complication. Sons and daughters, second wives, husbands and partners — all of mature years — can still behave like children when family ties turn into Chinese knots. Add to that the inevitable loss of bereavement, and for those aged over 70, in particular, even the most gregarious, will see their circle of friends shrink.
So what is to be done? Relate offers recommendations, including a minister for ageing; health checks on relationships (depends upon who is wielding the stethoscope) and greater efforts in later life to add to the circle of friends (although poll shows that only 4 percent of the over 50s rate making new friends).
What the report irritatingly fails to point out is that an attitude of mind is crucial. Predict a pessimistic “looming crisis” and it will undoubtedly happen. A minister for ageing, in the United Kingdom, would have no budget and no clout. Instead of encouraging each ministerial department — housing, health, communities to consider ageing as a natural continuum of its brief — it would allow them all to continue in their Peter Pan position and park any concerns on the secretary for senior citizens’ very small and wizened desk.
What the report also omits is that the baby boomers are nothing if not inventive. The plot of 50 shades of silver grey has yet to unfold. So far, that has consisted of developing every kind of device known to man to deny that aging is even taking place. But there is more to come.
Aging is no longer a process tied to chronological age — the 60-year-old first-time father springs to mind. But it does trigger a physical and mental change of mind that eventually impacts on even the most ardent of age-deniers as time runs out. Because the baby boomers are “the pig in the python” according to demographers — a large group of people of similar age causing a bulge in population statistics that moves through the demographic cycle — they have left an impact in each decade through which they passed by the sheer weight of their numbers and financial clout. How they meet the challenge of aging well — with or without a partner, in or out of love — is therefore of interest to us all.
In 2012, Al and Tipper Gore divorced in the U.S. after 40 years of marriage. Forty years is no mean feat. And still time for a second go. Why do people separate after a lifetime together? The reasons are as diverse as they are well rehearsed. Once the children are gone, silence may set in and boredom creep from the closet. Or it might be a case of: “Is that all there is?” And good enough is no longer strong enough; or one partner wants adventure and the other prefers more of the same.
“It’s not just about what you want to do,” says Penny Mansfield of the relationship charity One Plus One. “It’s also about what you are scared of changing.”
In his 2003 book “Aging Well,” George Vaillant, an American psychiatrist, drew lessons from three longitudinal studies that followed 824 people — the parents of the baby boomers — for more than 60 years. He was fascinated by why some became “sad sick” as the years progressed and others “happy well.”
One of the studies selected a Harvard group for their soundness of mind. Yet a third had suffered mental illness by their 50s. “They were normal when I picked them,” one researcher told Vaillant, “It must have been the psychiatrists who screwed them up.” Childhood isn’t decisive. How you start out, Vaillant learned, is no indicator of where you will end up.
He looked at those people, male and female, who had fared well emotionally as octogenarians and saw patterns in their 50s that gave signals. They were in a stable relationship, did not smoke, drank little, exercised, had a normal weight and had the maturity to handle emotional issues well, “and make a lemon into lemonade.” Comfortable in their own skins, they would not have mouthed the words of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”: “I still feel kind of temporary about myself.”
It is this “social aptitude” or emotional literacy that Vaillant discovered, not intellectual brilliance, or income or parental social class or genes that leads to successful ageing — that is being rich in well being and not alone.
Some of the wealthy in his studies died alone, prematurely and miserably just like a number of the poorest.
As you age, Vaillant advised: “Don’t try to think less of yourself … try to think of yourself less.” That, of course, may mean breaking the habit of a lifetime for some of the baby boomers. But it’s worth a try.