As boomers hit 60, do we now distrust anyone under 50?

January 26, 2007|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Somehow, I do not think that Sen. Barack Obama gets up in the morning, brushes his teeth, looks in the mirror and says, "Wow! A fresh face!" It doesn't happen at 45. At 45, you count the crow's feet and measure the circles under your eyes. If you are a woman, you start reading the fine print on the Olay Regenerist label. After, of course, putting on your new reading glasses. If you're a man, you start swiping eye cream from your wife's stash.

While you are inspecting your not-so-fresh face, you remember that when Mozart was your age, he had been dead 10 years. Albert Einstein published the big theory of relativity at 36. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at 33. It begins to occur to you that you will never be a prodigy or the "youngest" anything, not even the youngest president of the United States. Teddy Roosevelt had that sewed up at 42.

I say this to add a dose of reality to the chatter about the man slated to announce his candidacy for president Feb. 10. Mr. Obama is indeed this year's designated "fresh face." But on the flip side, those who are not questioning whether the Illinois Democrat is too black to be president are asking whether he is too green.

That's not green as in tree-hugging. That's green as in inexperienced and/or young. Even his little daughter asked, "Are you going to try to be president? Shouldn't you be the vice president first?"

The last time age was a presidential issue, you may recall, was when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election against Walter F. Mondale. The 73-year-old Mr. Reagan quipped, "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

But I find it bewildering to hear so many Americans worrying that a man who is middle-aged might be too young. The question, "How green is Mr. Obama?" may say less about the senator's youth than the country's age. Or the baby boomers' aging. In 1960, the average age of Americans was 29. Today, it's 36 and climbing. In 1960, life expectancy was 69. Now it's 77. More to the point, the baby boomer generation that is forever setting the agenda has begun turning 60.

Most of the green talk is indeed from boomers, a generation whose older members were just coming of age when John F. Kennedy was killed at 46. Is it possible that the same generation that didn't trust anybody over 30 when they were 20 doesn't trust anybody under 50 now that they are turning 60?

One of the charms of the boomers, the watermelon in the demographic python, is how they are managing to age without getting old. My favorite factoid comes from a Yankelovich study showing that boomers define "old age" as starting three years after the average American is dead.

But the side effect of feeling forever young is that boomers may regard their juniors as perennially too young. It's seen in the generational lament about the adult children who can't get launched. It's also seen in the boomers' defense of their (primary) place in the pecking order.

Remember, the average age in the Senate is 62. That's when you round out 89-year-old Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, and 42-year-old John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire. If the Senate is clogged with incumbents, consider the Ivy League. The Harvard faculty has more tenured professors over 60 than under 50. Then, too, scientists once got their first major research grant from the National Institutes of Health at 37; now the average age is 42. Sorry, Einstein.

Mr. Obama was technically born near the tail end of the boom, but he places himself politically outside the "psychodrama of the baby boom generation," which he describes as "a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago." The network anchors leading the green talk - Brian Williams, 47; Katie Couric, 50; and Charles Gibson, 63 - are all older.

Well, it's a shock when the people you went to high school with start ruling the world. It's another rite of passage to acknowledge juniors as your superiors. But boomers are now turning 60, with a life expectancy of 82. It's an early sign of memory loss to forget that at 45 you were wise or foolish or both - but you weren't young.

That master of the last word, Oscar Wilde, said, "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." He figured that out at 39.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column usually appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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