Waking up to the new reality of aging

April 05, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I suppose the moral of the story is not to mess with people's minds in the morning.

Since Bob Edwards, the anchor of National Public Radio's Morning Edition, was given his walking papers last week, listeners have reacted as if the network whisked away their coffee.

After 25 years, he's a more familiar presence in many bedrooms than a spouse. He's the alarm clock who modulates the jarring sounds of the morning news, leading us gently from that good night into the dubious day. Now, after being praised as a "true pioneer," he's being given the emeritus post of senior correspondent. In his trademark style, Mr. Edwards acknowledged, "I would have preferred to remain on Morning Edition." And: "I never had plans to do anything else."

This had 17,000 NPR listeners calling and e-mailing to ask why the management was trying to fix something that wasn't broken. One woman actually compared the bad news of Mr. Edwards' departure to her simultaneous diagnosis of a possible cancer, and asked herself: "Which is worse?"

The phrase that clanged ominously came from the spokesperson who described this exit as part of "a natural evolution" - a theory of evolution that many read as the "survival of the youngest." The idea that NPR, of all places, was going to replace Mr. Edwards, of all people, with a younger anchor - a trophy anchor? - sent a chill of vulnerability down the spine of his baby boomer peers.

It doesn't matter that few of us can imagine doing a job that starts at 2 a.m. for one year, let alone 25. Both the heave-ho and the reaction are an indication of the trouble Americans have coming to grips with the realities of the stretched life cycle.

In February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised the average American life expectancy again to 77.4 years. That's up from 47 years in 1900.

There is no longer a single narrative to that new life span. Today, one 45-year-old has grandchildren and another has a new baby. Bob Edwards is labeled long in the anchor tooth at 56, but Sen. John Edwards was considered young as presidential candidate at 50. And the AARP magazine runs a cover story titled: "Sixty is the New Thirty."

As for the media, Barbara Walters is leaving ABC's 20/20 at age 74, Don Hewitt is making room for "new blood" at CBS' 60 Minutes at 80, while Andy Rooney is still on the job at 85.

But most employers have the same prejudices against older Americans that they had when "older" was younger.

Indeed, age discrimination cases are rising faster than the life span. Since 1999, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are up more than 40 percent, most of them filed by white men in their 50s. A lot of older Americans are being sent out to pasture.

At the same time, we expect older Americans to keep working to save Social Security, or simply their own solvency. On the day after the Edwards announcement, Morning Edition ran a story on the enormous number of people working after retirement.

The room at the top has always been as narrow as the tip of a pyramid. For some, the specter of a generation being pushed aside is as foreboding as the ghost of Christmas future. For others, there is a fear that the older generation will never step aside.

In the midst of this, after all, are Generations X and Y, who may regard baby boomers as more than the watermelon in the python; they may see them as the obstacle in the pipeline.

After getting the word, Mr. Edwards told a reporter, "You have to figure it's going to happen someday, and you get out before they do it. But I failed."

Well, no, he didn't fail. There was no obvious reason to pull the plug on our morning coffee man. There is no reason for any "pioneer" at the top of his form not to stay there.

At the same time, there is every reason for Americans who are learning to invent and reinvent themselves at 22 or 45 to think about reinventing their work lives again at 57 and 76.

Today we seem clueless about the central fact of our lives. We are simply living longer. The man from Morning Edition has given us one more wake-up call.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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