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Aging Boomers, Health Reform and the End of Sex

Counter Culture Author Dubs New Elder Culture

New America Media, Q&A / Video, Paul Kleyman / Video: Cliff Parker Posted: Sep 14, 2009

Editors Note: In 1969, Theodore Roszak helped define the boomer generation with his groundbreaking book, "The Making of a Counter Culture." Now, four decades later, the 75-year-old social historian sees Woodstock Nation coming full circle in his 20th book, "The Making of an Elder Culture" (New Society Publishers, 2009). As the boomers -- 78 million-strong -- march past age 60, says Roszak, they bear the heirloom seeds of "what I call the counter culture, the willingness to question rather deeply the cultural standards of the society."

NAM editor Paul Kleyman interviewed Roszak at his home in Berkeley, Calif. Roszak described growing up Catholic in an insular white neighborhood of Chicago and how his students awakened him in the 1960s to new ways of seeing the world. He examined such topics as multiculturalism, the coming caregiver rebellion by boomer women, and what he means by "the end of sex."

Theodore Roszak from New America Media on Vimeo.

Its been a decade since you published America the Wise and its paperback edition, Longevity Revolution. Why did you decide to revisit the issues of our aging society?

The book is almost an appeal to the boomer generation to wake up to the power that it possesses and the responsibility that comes with that power. This is the generation that established the cult of youth. But theyre going to be older for a much longer time than they were ever young.

The question this book asks is: How will aging change the American population, especially the generation of the 60s, which is overwhelmed with associations of youth and activism?

Whats different about the way boomers will experience old age?

Every generation has its own characteristics, depending on what it lived through. One characteristic of the boomers is that as young people, they were willing to flirt with divergent ideas. Thats what I call the counterculture, the willingness to question rather deeply the cultural standards of society.

Thats something that went beyond politics. But what about issues such as what a family should be like? What are you living for, more and more money and acquisition? What should a good education be like? What should the relations of men and women be like? Thats probably what made them most annoying, raising issues about very deep social mores, customs, traditions.

This generation also had the experience of multiculturalism, which was very rarely part of the politics of the past, the idea of opening up society to as much cultural diversity as possible. That became a value, and a very controversial one.

You mention multiculturalism, but not all boomers were part of Woodstock Nation. How do you see the racial divide playing out in terms of Americas increasingly diverse older population?

Whats the phrase now? Were going to have a minority-majority. I grew up in a working poor family in Chicago. You just didnt see different kinds of people. The only black people you saw were if you went downtown, they carried your luggage at the railway station. There was little diversity in most Chicago neighborhoods. In fact, the boundaries were often guarded by violence.

So, for me, its really remarkable to see how this society has opened up to cultural diversity. Things that were once considered explosively controversial like jazz, music that was not Bing Crosby are now taken for granted. I think the boomer generation introduced that.

I remember when students protested that, What were reading are 40 great books by 40 great white guys. I had to admit, thats true. These are called the classics. What they wanted were a lot of different views of life -- Native American, African American, more gender diversity and more women represented in the curriculum. I was a young instructor at the time, and I found that exciting.

How do you see the racial divide playing out in our aging America?

This is one of the things that makes the health care issue so very important. You dont want just a lot of older people; you want a lot of older healthy people. If the health care system isnt reaching elements of the population because of money, thats got to change. Demographic ideas of the 1950s that as long as youve got a bunch of healthy, white middle-class families, youre okay are not going to work anymore. Youve got to spread health around. Thats one of the reasons Im hoping President Obamas going to come through with something that may stick in the craw of the conservatives, which the nation needs desperately.

Will America be able to afford it?

Its been striking to me that the first thing you always hear when you bring up even modest health care reform is, How can we afford that?

One of the major insights of the boomer generation, back when they were young, was from all the writing by people who said, This is a very rich society. Therefore, we should be able to provide a guaranteed annual income for everybody. If you go back, youll find even archconservatives like [University of Chicago economist] Milton Friedman saying, Why have all these social programs? Why dont we just mail people money, a negative income tax? If you didnt make enough money to come up to a certain level, the IRS will send you a check. There was no question in his mind that we were rich enough to afford these things.

One of the things that has been subject to social amnesia since about the 1970s is how basically rich this society is. I think theres been a deliberate attempt by corporate and conservative elements to bury that fact, so that people will think were poor, we cant afford anything, we cant afford music programs in the schools. We cant afford schools. Were very, very poor. This is not true; industrial societies are very, very rich. And they can afford a certain level of basic necessity, which should be available to everybody as a matter of right.

What about the recession?

You know, this whole economic crisis is a kind of perverse measure of how rich we are. Its been filled with abuse and scamming and banditry. What were going through is not like the sort of economic crisis people in Somalia might go through. They are authentically poor.

One of my appeals in the book is that boomers should revive that discussion, when we thought we could provide a decent standard of living and health for everybody.

Part of health care reform not being discussed is the lack of long-term care and help for family caregivers. Will that remain on the back burner as a major expense families will just have to continue bearing themselves?

One thing I think is going to have to change is our perception of caregiving along the entire spectrum, from terminally ill people to reasonably healthy elders, who are frail and need assisted living. Instead of regarding this as a liability, I think we should see this as one of the frontiers of employment and investment.

In the future, our economy is going to be a health care economy. Instead of treating those services as something menial, we should treat them as something respectful and professional, so that it will be well done and be well paid for. We tend to think of a lot of nursing assistants as very low level. But thats got to change, and I think it will as more demand for that kind of help emerges.

Emerge how?

Were going to see in the next 10 years a rebellion on the part of women in their 50s, who are getting stuck with eldercare for no money. They have to cut off their careers and stop being what they wanted to be to stay home and become caregivers. And its very hard to be a caregiver these days; its not like Victorian times, when youd make a cup of tea for Grandmother and put her by the fire. Now youve got to have a lot of medical skills to do effective eldercare.

At some point, were going to get a rebellion that says, Look, our parents deserve better than what we can give them at home as amateurs. Theres going to be a big push for spending a lot of money on long-term care.

Long-term care is like a ticking time bomb. An awful lot of American families are being asked, in effect, to carry the full burden of longevity. And thats not fair.

Aging boomers are often depicted as holding onto the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll of their youth. How do you see elders evolving?

Theres a chapter in the book called The End of Sex, where I use end, not as a finish, but as an objective, the goal. I think were going to see relationships shift markedly, radically, among couples, as aging begins to become more characteristic of our lives. Loyalty and caring are going to become the more dominant theme of relationships. As nature runs its course, couples will begin to realize that there comes a time when the physical condition of your spouse becomes a dominant theme in your life, and your condition becomes a dominant theme in your spouses life.

What about drugs?

In the book what I suggest is that the most effective way of transforming consciousness dramatically and significantly in an enduring way is organically, without any chemical additives. Nothing changes consciousness more than aging.

Consciousness transformation was such a dominant theme of the counterculture of the 60s. In an elder culture, though, its going to become the transformation of simply maturing, getting older and seeing life from a very different perspective. It makes a lot of difference, if you think you have 50 years ahead of you or 10 years ahead in life.

Related Articles:

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Polish Elders 'Keep Things Happening' to Stay Vital

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