Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age | By Susan Jacoby | Pantheon Books | 352 pages, $27.95
In an aggressive new ad campaign, the Raymond James financial firm has made a mascot of a fictional character named Emily Skinner, a prudent Victorian-style librarian who cannily built up an investment portfolio to see her through her golden years. And then, the ad’s narrator informs us, she “went right on living.” We see this fortunate soul marrying younger men, conquering a professional foe in what appears to be an international ping-pong match, and hang-gliding at the ripe old age of 187.
It’s an effective spot, though not so much for dramatizing the firm’s financial acumen—one wonders just how Ms. Skinner’s nest egg outlasted the successive debacles of the 1980s S&L collapse, the bursting of the early-aughts tech bubble, and of course the 2008 mortgage meltdown. No, the beauty of the campaign is how perfectly it captures the American reverie of old age as simple life extension. Ms. Skinner never falls ill, grows frail, or forfeits a single brain cell as she just keeps living. Presumably every single friend, lover, and relative from her generation is long dead and buried, but she never appears to succumb to depression or grief. Nope, she just goes on outfitting herself with new companions and athletic challenges—a lifestyle choice that wins loud plaudits from the entire complex of age-enabling institutions, including retirement funds and pharmaceutical companies, but that most psychiatric professionals would likely class as borderline psychotic.
It’s probably fair to say that Susan Jacoby, the author of such heroic works of debunking as The Age of Unreason, is the anti-Emily Skinner. Not in terms of longevity, mind you—as the sixty-five-year-old Jacoby notes, the women in her family have commonly survived into their ninth decade, and her own mother is still a mentally astute, if physically frail, octogenarian. But in Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, the author dismantles the overlapping financial, physical, and psychological fairy tales that lull most Americans into complacency about the harsh facts of diminishing life.
At the core of these evasions, she argues, is a piece of demographic sleight-of-hand. Americans have come to draw a largely spurious distinction between the remorselessly self-actualizing “young old” (boomer oldsters just now approaching retirement) and the more hopeless “old old” (citizens in their mid-eighties and upward, who are routinely prey to debilitating physical conditions, senility, poverty, and other well known, if little discussed, blows to human dignity). The popular aging authority Harry R. Moody, for instance, has coined the expression “wellderly” to give a euphemistic boost to the younger cohort; their far less fortunate seniors get the sad-face moniker “illderly.” As Jacoby notes, these coy bursts of psychobabble gloss over a simple truth: everybody in the first group will inexorably end up in the second. Such denial is crucial, however, to the marketing of “a concept of aging that ends where the more disabling, restrictive stage of old age begins.”
Beyond all the cheery feelspeak in the Emily Skinner vein, Jacoby argues, the marketers of the new old age are pushing a fundamentally cruel and misleading account of the aging process. Not surprisingly, this vision finds its most receptive audience among boomers—who constitute, after all, the mother of all consumer demographics, accustomed to having their merest whims coddled on an industrial scale. “Longevity enthusiasts, especially in the boomer generation, never ask whether longer life will necessarily be a gift; most are convinced that they can bend old age to their will through their own good behavior, reinforced by a little help from Big Pharma,” insists the author. “There is a breathtaking arrogance about this assumption, coupled with a denial of the role that accidents, of both genetics and the environment, play in the health of human beings at every stage of life.”