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Interview: Boomers Change the Way We Grow Old

 

Naomi Woodspring is the author of Baby Boomers: Time and Ageing Bodies

Naomi Woodspring is the author of Baby Boomers: Time and Ageing Bodies

A British sociologist paints a vivid picture of the first wave of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1955. She provides a penetrating look at how the 1960s influenced the postwar generation and shaped their view of old age.In Baby Boomers: Time and Ageing Bodies, Naomi Woodspring, a research fellow at University of the West of England, writes boomers are changing how we grow old. They are focused on contributing a legacy for younger generations.

To learn more, AHB reached Dr. Woodspring in Bristol, England.

Ruth Dempsey: This is a theme close to your own heart . . .

Naomi Woodspring: Indeed. As an American, born in the first wave of the postwar generation, I came to this research as both an outsider and insider. I am an immigrant to the United Kingdom, and I was an acid-taking, commune-living activist and a ’60s hippie.

RD: Drawing on interviews with a diverse group of individuals, your book discusses how boomers inherited a changed world, and how it has influenced their journey through life.

NW: That’s right. The ’60s in the United States was different than in the United Kingdom. For one thing, the United Kingdom did not have the Vietnam War and a draft that galvanized young Americans.

Worldwide, many social and cultural factors affected how the ’60s played out from Mexico to India. Each country had its own influences and particular flavour.

That said, there was also a collective sense of the period. Music was central to the ’60s. It conveyed the generation’s sense of fun, their hopes and fears. So the music became my starting point. As I interviewed people, it became clear to me that it was the influence of the ’60s that was important.

But that was only the beginning. Other changes during the period had little to do with whether you grew your hair long, wore a bra, rode a Vespa, or made free love. Take legislation that loosened the censorship laws and abolished capital punishment. Divorce laws were reformed and abortion legalized.

The Church of England assumed a more liberal position in some of its attitudes. Laws on homosexuality were reformed. The arrival of the Pill decoupled sex and procreation. And the founding of the National Health Service ensured healthcare for all. These were fundamental changes that affected everyone.

Fear of nuclear war haunted the postwar generation. They were also the first to glimpse Earthrise, a visceral reminder that we are all citizens of one planet.

I could go on, but you get the general drift. These changes did not mushroom up out of nowhere. They are part of a long trajectory of history. Consider Mary Wollstonecraft and her discussions of free love. Add to this, ideas from the Romantic era, the Utopian movements and the Golden Age Twenties, among others.

So a number of elements went into making the ’60s. As with all generations, there was an intergenerational exchange. That exchange was a blending of historic events, ideas and the choices made by the postwar generation.

Fast forward 40 years, and the influence of the ’60s lingers, offering this group a strong sense of identity and shaping how they approach old age.

RD: Earthrise offered promise of collective action and peace. What do you say to those who claim boomers failed to live up to their promise?

NW: What promise? We are leaving a legacy that another world is possible. We have pushed this notion farther than it has been pushed in the past. As American social critic Michael Parenti points out, the rich and powerful will always protect the rich and powerful. Today, many of the postwar generation continue to address equity and social justice issues.

In fact, this was a recurring theme in the interviews. Regardless of where participants were on the political spectrum, they discussed the need for change.

Also, I see the generations after us stepping forward and taking over from us. This is our legacy.

RD: What does aging feel like for your interviewees?

NW: Ah, what does aging feel like? That is an impossible question. It is like asking what the water feels like in a flotation tank. It feels like life.

Certainly, participants are profoundly aware that they have lived more years than they have left to live. For the most part, individuals expressed acceptance of their aging body. “I look my years,” was a common refrain.

Most are physically active, including those with chronic health problems. This group enjoys physical activity. At various points in their lives, they were gardeners, cyclists, walkers or golfers. Some are runners, others take gym classes. As Gill put it, “I want to feel good in my body.”

RD: How has watching their parents age, affected them?

NW: Most of the participants envision a different kind of old age for themselves. Times change. As one participant observed, “People [were] dying at 70 – now we’re still working, we’ve got lots of things to do, lots of hobbies and we’re a totally different generation.”

RD: With longer life expectancies, boomers are confronting new challenges.

NW: I would say that longevity has allowed these participants to imagine a different kind of aging. A majority of working-class people in my study had already lived longer than family members of previous generations.

Rather than talking about life being over, interviewees used the language of “becoming.” As one participant put it, “I’m still very much becoming. This is quite an exciting time for me – it can be stressful but I do feel like I’m becoming.”

RD: What about worries?

NW: Many talked about the state of the world, especially the challenges facing next generations. They discussed the economy, climate change, wealth disparity and the dominance of banks and corporations on society.

Of course, they had personal worries, too. Concerns about their ability to remain independent. No longer being able to do the things they love. Some discussed their fear of death.

At the same time, they expressed a sense of fun, laughing at themselves, at their pasts and at their sagging bodies.

RD: What do they find most satisfying about who they are today?
Naomi Woodspring is the author of Baby Boomers: Time and Ageing Bodies
NW: That’s a difficult question. Everyone, in one way or another, appeared to be living large. Perhaps, that was what I found most notable: a sense of satisfaction that showed up in a “full-of-lifeness.”

RD: Participants talked about leaving a legacy. Can you give me an example?

NW: Oh my, there are so many examples from what I call conscious grandparenting to launching new businesses based on sustainability to mentoring to pursuing political activism.

RD: What surprised you?

NW: I was struck by similarities in the group. Interviewees came from different social classes, genders, sexual orientations, racial and ethnic groups and from all points on the political spectrum, yet the similarities were striking. These people have developed a potent sense of themselves as a generation.

They reject the media hype of a war between generations. Indeed, several are interested in community-based initiatives that bridge the generations. This may be why so many were willing to take part in the study. Researchers struggle to find a diverse group of people to interview. But I had to turn people down. My sense is that they want to tell their own story.

Over 40 years ago, Maggie Kuhn noted, “Few people know how to be old.” Perhaps this still holds true today. Participants in this study said they had few role models for the sort of aging they are now experiencing. There is very little research on this generation that is not speculative. Part of my original intent was to show people of my generation that they are not alone in the ways they are living and thinking about age.

Becoming old opens up new possibilities, new ways of being in the world. Not one person, I interviewed showed any interest in settling into a quiet old age. This was surprising. In this last phase of their lives, they want to create a legacy – through active social and cultural engagement.