Rock 'N' Roll Rest Home
The Boomers Will Retire Into an Old Age of Aquarius

March 27, 2005 | By Mary Ann Hogan

Pass the bran muffins, light the incense, and crank up the Rolling Stones. It’s breakfast time here at the Sunny Hills Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home, that rollicking feel-good place where our nation’s 77 million Baby Boomers will go to stage the final act of their lives.

Before anyone trips over the phone cord trying to get on a waiting list, know that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home is still, at this point, just an idea, a metaphor, a dream, a best-case scenario, maybe even, depending on your proclivities, a hallucination. One that a loose network of forward-thinking experts has been pondering as we march toward that demographic watershed of a date, Jan. 1, 2011.

That’s the day the Boomers start turning 65.

And then they’ll be 70, then 75, 80, and faster than you can say In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the landscape will be teeming with old folks, more than have ever been old together in the history of the continent.

These aren’t your parents’ old folks. They’ll be old folks whose generational ethos has always been, well, Dylan put it best, Forever Young.

So many Boomers getting so old so soon promises to shape the whole society. Futurists and demographers are consulting their statistics and plotting scenarios.

Some say we will become a nation of narcissists, and spend all our money on our last hoorah and beyond, scarfing down buckets of anti-aging props, pills and shakes while salivating marketers cater to our ever-selfish whims. They predict we’ll spend our days consuming pricey treats and our nights pounding our fists at the unfairness of it all; we really are over 30, dammit, and on top of that, mortal, with one foot already firmly planted in that final Davy Crockett fort in the sky.

Breathe deep.

Others say we will go happily into that good night, grabbing and owning old-hood for all it’s worth, the same way we grabbed and owned passages and causes of decades gone by, delayed adolescence, college, parenthood, self-esteem, the business world, even the presidency. Softly, gently, we will evolve into wisdom-imparting elders, in a massively populated bow to the tribal ways of yore, when the average life expectancy was 40, so anyone who made it to 80 was not only honored, but thought to be touched by God (so God forbid you’d ever stick ‘em away in a nursing home).

“There’s sort of a Shakespearean-story aspect to it,” says Ken Dychtwald, psychologist, author and president of Age Wave, a San Francisco-based consulting firm that specializes in Boomer-related markets and trends. “One outcome is that we care only about our own gratification. The other is the ultimate replanting of life. What will be our legacy? That’s the unwritten chapter.”

But what if both things happen at the same time? Left brain, right brain. Yin and yang. Mars and Venus. Red and blue. What if we are heading for the ultimate replay of the culture wars, a chance for a huge group of people with a huge amount of time on their hands to argue sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the 1960s all over again?

At stake, says Dr. William H. Thomas, is quality of the final Boomer years. A maverick geriatrician, Thomas is at the hub of a movement to replace nursing homes with communal habitats of like-minded people, plants, pets, music and genuinely good old-folk vibes.

“We’ll have a subset of Boomers leading the emergence of a new kind of old age,” Thomas says. “The Boomers will find a way to make old age cool.”

Will we?

Only Rock 'N' Roll

It’s exercise hour at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home, that still imaginary place where Boomers—Americans born in the years 1946 to 1964—will bend and stretch their way into a period of longevity the length and breadth of which this land has not yet seen.

One thing’s certain: We’ll be bending and stretching to rock ‘n’ roll, says the University of Chicago’s Tom W. Smith, director of the National Opinion Research Center’s massive social science survey of trends in American life and thought.

“The favored music will be rock and roll, in the same way that our parents’ generation wanted to hear the big band sound,” Smith says. “It’s the strongest example of what we call ‘the cohort effect.’”

In other words, the music you hear as you come of age tends to be the sound you prefer as you grow old. Ours is the soundtrack of growing up Boomer. School dances. Kids who tried pot. Kids who wore Madras. Induction centers. Protests. The town memorial service for RFK. The moon landing. Dr. King. Mr. Nixon. The Mets’ first pennant. The Saigon Baby Airlift. The Yellow Submarine, Red China, Black Panthers, Green Berets, Walter Cronkite signing off, “And that’s the way it is.”

This doesn’t surprise Peter Hart, whose Boston rhythm and blues band is made up of 50-plus rockers. They call themselves Geezer.

“You can bet the parties at the rest home will be a lot more raucous than they are now,” says bass player Hart. “We’ll be gigging there. We’ll be playing till our bodies give out. It’s better than all living together in a stadium when Social Security runs dry.”

But there are different ways to party, just as there’s different rock ‘n’ roll, The Doors, The Animals, The Four Tops, The Dave Clark Five, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Janis, Jimi. And remember the number one chart-topping hit of 1966, the one that squeezed out The Beatles, the Stones and Wilson Pickett? It was Sgt. Barry Sadler’s service-to-country anthem, The Ballad of the Green Berets.

Silver wings

Upon his chest

Make him one

Of America’s best.

Doctor, Doctor

A long time ago, way before Boomers started going in for triple bypass surgery, eons before Washington wonks worried about the gerontological train wreck of too many oldsters and not enough doctors, everything seemed possible.

It was 1966. Time magazine named as its Man of the Year a generation—young adults under age 25.

Time called them the Now Generation, a cultural juggernaut whose “convictions and actions, once defined, will shape the course and character of nations.” A pretty tall order but typical of the prestige the world attached to the Generation that Would Never Grow Old.

They were “intellectual,” Time said, “skeptical,” and engaged in an “omphaloentric process of self-construction and discovery.” They were also “highly independent,” which made them “highly unpredictable.”

These were the leading-edge Boomers, those who clearly recall Kennedy’s assassination, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the Tet Offensive. How these first wavers encounter and shape their old age will open or close doors and possibilities for the rest, the Boomers who came of age after the ‘60s.

If we all keep working (70 percent of us told the AARP we would work well into our eighth decade), we’ll steal some of the best jobs from the generations below us.

If we all retire (one-third have $50,000 or less set aside, and only seven percent have $150,000, we told the U.S. Government’s Retirement Confidence Survey), we might break the collective back of those charged with feeding and caring for us.

Either way, money will trade hands—lots of money.

“No one in human history has so commanded the attention of the economic organism of American marketing. This will happen big, big, big time as they age,” says current Time essayist Lance Morrow.

“As they have done everything de novo, they’ll find ingenious and wonderful solutions to all sorts of problems.,” Morrow says. “Here come those great new walkers! It’s hilarious to contemplate.”

The up side: Acres of novel inventions, wonder drugs, medical marvels and gadgets for lifestyles still unimagined, all in the name of staving off the great—if unpleasant—inevitable.

The down side: Will only the seven percent with $150,000 in the mattress have access to it all?

“Who will be first in line? Will survival—survival of the fittest—become a blood sport?” asks Dr. Florence Comite, associate clinical professor at Yale University School of Medicine. “That’s an awful thought—the worst case scenario.”

So government gets into the act. Comite predicts a new ethical creed evolving to help us sort out the answers. “An emergence of the ethics deeply bred within our generation,” she says.

Something’s got to give, Morrow agrees. “These will be critical decisions. You can’t just put 70 million people out on an ice floe.”

That would be some party, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home on an ice floe with Manfred Mann singing its only Number One U.S. hit, written by Dylan:

When Quinn the Eskimo gets here

everybody’s gonna jump for joy.

Just Who Are We?

If those who study the Boom psyche are right, the first things to shift (besides the hair, the height and the waistline) will be the language. There will be no more golden years, no “retiree,” “elderly,” no autumnal, senior-citizen beating around the bush.

“There will be no euphemizing it. We’ll be old,” says William Strauss, expert in generational cycles and co-author of The Fourth Turning.

Figuring out what to call ourselves—geezer, old aquarians, shaky dudes and old fogies for starters—will show that we know who we are and are OK with it.

In San Francisco, filmmaker Susan Stern and her 50-something friends have already done it. They are Crone Babes.

“Being a Crone Babe is not about facelifts or trying to reclaim our youth,” says Stern, whose film Barbie Nation explored gender roles and body image. “Being a Crone Babe is about how women can be beautiful and sexual, and to do that throughout their lives.”

Stern, for one, sees a rest home that offers “workshops in sexuality, not just flower arranging and genealogy.” Says Comite, creator of Yale’s pioneering health program for aging women: “Sex and sexuality will be an important part of true connectivity, intimacy, even spirituality and how it all ties in to finding meaning” in old age.

What women say about it all is especially important, because, well, they live longer. Instead of drugs that deny old age, some visionaries see us taking the drugs that help us accept it (enter medical marijuana), as well as round-the-clock Internet access to medical specialists, scanners that read your finger and check your vitals and tell you and your doc whether your meds need to go up or down.

Don’t even call it a rest home, they say. Call it “a life-extension community,” part spa, part communal residence, a place where the rule is exercise, massageand well-being for both body and spirit. Or more leafy, comfortable habitats like Eden Alternatives, or communal Green Houses.

The shift in vocabulary presupposes a shift in the way we think about getting old.

“We equate old age with decline,” says geriatrician Thomas, father of the “Eden Alternative” movement. “All our policy, all our research, is declinist. Government policy people take the view: ‘Old people are a plague of locusts and we have to do something about them before they do something horrible to us.’

“You don’t hear them saying, ‘Holy Cow! Society is gonna be blessed with a vast number of people with a huge amount of life experience.’ You couldn’t drag that sentence out of them with a tow truck.”

Thomas, author of What are Old People Good for? How Elders Will Save the World, sees the Boomer future as “a contest of ideas; a contest of people who can imagine, and those who rely on Power Point slides and bar charts. The future always belongs to those who can imagine.”

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one.

—John Lennon

Red Cane, Blue Cane

But wait! Don’t forget, the Boomers are not all political, long-haired, college-bred and hell-bent on changing the world.

“The truth is, we weren’t all joggers, we didn’t all go to Berkeley. Most Boomers never protested anything,” says Jeffrey Love, chief of research for the AARP.

In fact, there are wide and varied chasms among us: economic, cultural, philosophical, and the testy matters of politics, religion and the meaning of things. How will that play out when we’re all locked together in the yellow submarine of old age? Will we spend our cocktail hours and tea time poking each other with red canes and blue, in endless argument about who was right about Vietnam?

Maybe. But the communications revolution of the early 21st century has handed us a chance to group up in ways we never imagined. Instead of the “local” rest home, there may well be communal groups of Swift Boat vets over here, environmentalists over there, history buffs down the street, church fellows, artists, musicians, stock speculators. The World Wide Web will allow these “naturally occurring retirement communities” to operate across national, and cultural, boundaries. On the other hand, each communal grouping could create its own blog and spend its last days on Earth slugging it out in cyberspace with the other old bloggers.

“There will be stresses within the generation,” says Fourth Turning author Strauss. “There will be some sort of endgame to the Culture Wars. The question is, will the divisions get deeper? Will there be a solution? If the divisions worsen, it could be damaging to the nation as a whole. If they end, it would be healing.”

Our house

Is a very, very, very fine house

With two cats in the yard

Life used to be so hard

Now everything is easy

—Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Letting It Be

It’s lights-out at the Sunny Hills Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home, that peaceful (we hope) space and time where Boomers will literally stage the very last act of their lives.

In the end, that’s exactly what Boomers will have in common: The End.

Current life expectancy for men is 79, for women, 81.

Though we will all be dying, if the researchers are right, we’ll do it in creative and different ways.

“There’s a whole as yet unimagined approach to death and dying,” Thomas says. “We don’t know what form it will take.”

Boomerists talk of a new surge in spirituality,of movements to reject extraordinary medical treatment. Of going out instead on the pleasant ice floe of pharmaceutical oblivion. Of celebratory “send off” parties, last hoorahs where loved ones honor you before (and during) the great departure, rather than after. Of themed events (maybe virtually produced) that surround the honoree in the final hours with a favorite place, moment or song.

“Being an other-worldly generation,” says generational historian Neil Howe, “we will give a lot of thought to death and dying; to Thanatos, just as we paid a lot of attention to Eros.”

But, the endings will not be written by experts. They will grow out of the personal choices of more than 70 million highly independent, highly unpredictable people.

Each of them, somewhere out there, destined to drop off to sleep tonight, just as they will one day soon at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home, smiling as the music floats in from Rare Earth:

I just want to celebrate

Another day of living

I just want to celebrate

Another day of life.