The other day, I read another one of those articles called, "Is 60 the new 40?" We hear about this supposed phenomenon all the time. 60 is the new 40, 70 is the new 50, 110 is the new 108, etc. It means that people are living longer today, they're healthier, and they're enjoying life more. All that is great. However, at the same time that people are feeling much younger than people their age felt in previous generations, an all-powerful culture of youth is dominating our society. People in their 20s are getting cosmetic surgery to look younger. Men and women in their 40s are considered too old to work in some fields. More and more people are forced to take early retirement at an earlier and earlier age. So while older people are feeling younger these days, our society may be seeing them as older, not younger. Maybe in terms of perceptions, 40 is the new 60.
First, the good news: Today, the average age for someone moving into a nursing home is 81. In the 1950's, it was 65. In a 2005 Merrill Lynch survey of people between the ages of 40 and 59, 76 percent said they planned to retire when they were about 64 — and then start an entirely new career. Men and women in their 70s and 80s race in almost every marathon. Seniors teach and take classes, travel, and just seem to live fuller lives than ever before.
But that's not how society sees them. Judging by TV commercials, right when we get out of baby diapers, we have to prepare ourselves to get into adult diapers. And look how young the people are in the ads for Viagra-like products, hair dyes, and arthritis medications. It's as if Madison Avenue is saying that it's over for you once you're past the grand old age of 25.
There is one area in our society in which being older is not held against you. And it's the one area that maybe it should be — presidential politics. Being young can actually hurt a candidate. We hear things like, "Is he too inexperienced?" or "Is he mature enough?" The majority of today's candidates are too old to be considered for most jobs in the "real world." But apparently, Americans like their leaders to look like parents, or grandparents. It's ironic that just when people might be getting a bit more forgetful, when they may have a few more health problems, when they have less and less of a connection to America's youth, that's when they are considered the right age to lead our country. Americans don't seem to want any hand without liver spots to be on that dangerous, red button.
But for the rest of the population, ageism is a problem. People employed in television and other fields no longer worry about being blacklisted. But they fear being "graylisted." If you're lucky enough to still work at your job after 20 or 30 years, those young people who roll their eyes when you start talking about how things were done "back in the old days" are the same people who want your job — and will probably get it.
So, does our culture truly appreciate and admire those who have all that comes with telltale gray hairs? You may read dozens of magazine articles celebrating the vitality of the aged, but you won't see one ad like this in any of those publications: "Lacking Experience and Wisdom? Want to Look a Little Older so More People Will Respect You? Try Our New Aging Cream for Instant Wrinkles and Gray Hair."
But I'm not worried about my future. If I get to the point that nobody in my chosen field wants to hire me, if it takes me even longer to remember people's names, if all my hair turns white, and if I have no idea what young people are thinking about, I'll still have one option open to me: I can always run for president.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them written by authors over 40.
By Lloyd Garver