In his recent "Your Money" column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chris Farrell wrote: "Many Americans, it seems, are gripped with foreboding over the prospect of living longer. But we often forget how creative people are at coming up with solutions. Retirement is no different. The doomsters underestimate our creativity."
I'm sure Chris is right. Boomer creativity, for better or worse, has been a renewable energy source. Long before the kids took over, Boomers extended and paved the information highway. And long before the Feds tried to take over, Boomers created and drove the faux financial markets that turned the country upside down. Literary critics complain that that the Boomers have yet to produce a body of great fiction, but maybe all that imagination has been going into making electronic connections, TV, advertising and Gecko profits.
Chris is the economics editor for American Public Media's "Marketplace Money," and a Life (Part 2) stalwart, a smart, lively guest who this season shows up to comment on Money is Love (Show #5) and Encore Careers (#15).
On a Life (Part 2) panel discussion at the Harvard Club in New York last week, Chris predicted that Boomers would creatively cut costs and find new ways to make money. His larger point was that just because Boomers were born with a leg up - their parents used the Thick Times to make sure their children had everything they might have missed out on because of depression and war - doesn't mean they don't have the survival skills to make do in Thin Times. In fact, the confidence born of entitlement might be armamet enough.
On the other hand, as Michael Winerip recently pointed out in his always interesting "Generation B" column in the Sunday New York Times, "starting about 20 years ago researchers noticed a higher rate of depression in boomers than the previous generation at that age. They attributed the increase to a number of stresses: more divorces, more-transient lifestyles, more drug use."
That drug use includes marijuana. Using National Institutes of Health statistics, Slate Magazine extrapolated this: "There are about as many Boomers using cannabis today as there are high school students doing the same." Slate dubbed these Boomers as "resumers," coming back to puffing times, perhaps after the kids left the house. Of course, some Boomers never just said no.
Is there a connection in all this? Boomers have always coupled pot and creativity. The resistance against medical marijuana and marijuana use in general seems to be softening. Are we heading toward High Times? Is this part of a survival culture? Any thoughts out there? Anonymity protected.
Gail Sheehy and Jane Adams are two of my favorite guests on the show and I got to hang out with both of them last Sunday, one in person and the other between the covers of a smart, sexy new novel. It was also the day Life (Part 2) came to life; we premiered on our producing station, tpt, in St. Paul/Minneapolis.
Gail and I were guests at an "Inside Media" forum at the Newseum, a spectacular taj of journalism near the National Mall, well worth a visit. Rich Foster, the director of education and programs, moderated. I enjoyed answering questions instead of asking them for a change.I talked mostly about the show while Gail's deft story-telling fleshed out the statistics of the Boomer generation. After all, this is the reporter whose Passages changed the way people thought about their lives and their cohorts. A Newseum volunteer, a social worker during the week, stopped Gail to say that reading her in college had informed his career choice.
Gail, who appears on show #3 (Caregiving) and #8 (Boomer Dating), talked at lunch with me and Naomi Boak, Life (Part 2)'s executive producer, about her latest project, a book on care-giving. She's been researching the final chapter about a community in San Francisco expressly created for mutual care-giving.
Jane Adams' new novel, Sugar Time, was my companion on the three-hour train rides from and to New York. I'm not much of a chick-lit reader and would not have picked it up if I weren't interested in Jane - I know from her appearances on show #2 (Generation Gaps) and #5 (Money Is Love) that she is an insightful, down-to earth social psychologist and I wondered if that could translate into fiction. I packed her book in a bag of reading material, figuring to take just a preview peek. I never got to the Sunday papers or anything else.
I was locked into the funny, poignant, page-turning adventures of Charlotte Sugerman Kane, a fifty-something television writer/producer who has issues with her Mom, her kids, her dog and a conniving assistant as she lunges at what could be her last chance at a successful TV show. If that wasn't a plateful, she suffers a series of stress-induced cardiac events that she hides from the network and from her wonderful new lover lest they both cancel her. And it seems that Mr. Dreamy has a secret, too. Sugar is sharp-tongued, bawdy, intelligent, tough, and engagingly vulnerable. I know enough not to conflate characters and authors, but I do have to ask Jane about those sex scenes. Of course, before I do I'll re-read Gail's "Sex and the Seasoned Woman" so I don't seem totally uninformed.
Just a few days from our first broadcast now and I'm particularly flattered that Channel 21 in New York thought Life (Part2) was so strong that it scheduled us on Wednesdays at 11:30 against Conan, Letterman and Charlie Rose. Watch for a run on DVR's. (Or watch the show here.)
While marriage is the roundtable discussion on the first show, it was the one-on-one chat with Cathie Black that kept me up nights. Cathie is the president of Hearst Magazines, which includes Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and O, The Oprah Magazine, and a steely charmer. We talked about the increasing Boomer issue of having to take orders from a younger boss. Deal with it, ordered Cathie; learn the language of the boss' generation, dress cooler, listen to current music and, most important, stay up with technology. And whatever you do, she warned, don't tell the boss how we did it in the old days. It was tough, smart advice, even if hard to swallow. I know it's hard enough to treat your grown up kids like grown-ups, but your baby boss? On the other hand, since Boomers love to think they are forever young, maybe it's not so hard to assimilate.
After that, marriage sounded easy (unless you married someone of your young boss's generation.)
In the last blog, we alluded to the notion that boomer marriages, based on the divorce rate, were less stable that those of their parents' generation (the Greatest or Gratingest, depending on your sentimentality). Ma and Pa stuck it out even if it meant barely communicating for years on end. I think much of that had to do with women having limited status or prospects outside marriage in those days. Where was she going to go, what was she going to do? Nowadays, so many boomer women have professions and careers, they don't necessarily need a man to support or define them. And then there's that Boomer optimism - you don't have to make do with your mistake because there's surely someone better out there.
Our panel gets to that and much more. Terry Real talks about the new rules of marriage and Suzanne Braun Levine confides that the first 37 years were the hardest. Most surprising for me was Dr. Janet Taylor on how conflict can often lead to a healthier relationship than compromise.
I particularly enjoyed this panel, although when you've got such smart and entertaining guests, the host never gets a chance to drop in his own bad jokes. I'd heard this one at the Friars Club in New York when one of those ancient comics tottered out on stage (average age at the Friars is deceased) and began to rant, "Same- sex marriage, same-sex marriage, that's all I hear about these days. What about a some-sex marriage?"
Since late January, my first stop in the Sunday New York Times has been Michael Winerip's GenerationB column in the Styles Section. In a mere eight months, Mike, an old colleague from the paper, has become the Boomer Boswell.
With his signature graceful style, empathy, and eye for vivid detail, he's told us stories about blended families, graying surfers, sex toys, surviving Madoff, caring for aging parents, and on-line dating that bring those Yankelovich stats we so love to throbbing life. Last week's installment of the not-so-young but still restless was about a 58-year-old student loan company executive who went from $225,000 a year to what is beginning to look like everlasting unemployment. He lives alone in an inexpensive suburban apartment, Mike wrote, and "goes for the $2.99 breakfast special at a nearby diner every morning, just to get out and be around people." Mike obviously hit a nerve. He got hundreds of e-mails on that one, some of which will doubtlessly be future columns.
"I have to admit that my first reaction to this assignment was negative," said Mike when I called him off the beach the other day on his Cape Cod vacation. "I thought it would be a series of stereotypes about those entitled, self-absorbed boomers.
"And I didn't think there was really a generation out there with similar values, just people who would change as they grew older."
But with a Boomer's conditioned optimism, Mike took it as a challenge and found that he was right and he was wrong. There was a common sense of entitlement - no American generation had grown up with such privilege and prospects - but no common political, religious, social, sexual response to that entitlement. All things were possible. The revolutions - which had been started by pre-Boomers - were now the Boomers to keep going.
And as Mike dug into the breezy myths - the Boomers were unstable, just look at the divorce rate, while that Greatest Generation stayed married - he came to understand that Boomers just weren't about to settle for the discontent they'd grown up with in their parents' marriages.
Most of Mike's columns are deeply reported - as one would expect from one of the Times' treasures, a Pulitzer Prize winner who can also write acclaimed children's novels (Google him yourself, this is my blog). But the ones that touch me most are about the lower-middle-class kid from Quincy, Mass. who went to Harvard, missed serving in Vietnam or getting muddy at Woodstock, but like our President, inhaled. Mike has four kids whose alcohol consumption bothers him, much less any pot smoking.
"I know it seems hypocritical but you do change as you get older," he said. "I'm also less sure I can change the world, and I no longer feel the need to be consistent with what I was."
A couple of months ago, Mike, a jogger and biker, found out he had a blockage in an artery. The brush with mortality rocked him. He's 57, about the age when his father suffered his first heart attack. He died after the third, at 65. Mike got a stent, one of the techno advances not available in Dad's day. Would modern medicine outweigh heredity? Now there's a Boomer question.
Soon after the stent was implanted, Mike went swimming in the ocean lifeguarded by Ben and Sam, two of his sons. I loved Mike's image of his college-age boys flanking him shoulders to shoulders as he breasted the waves. Leave it to the Boomer Boswell to find a heart-warming spin on the Sandwich Generation.