Golden Years?

Susan Jacoby takes on the old-age deniers in Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age
January 8, 2011

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.”

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So, for instance, pharmaceutical companies find consumers readily gulled by pitches for FDA-approved products like Aricept, an alleged treatment for Alzheimer’s. In fact, independent British tests have found the compound to be completely ineffectual in treating the disease’s ravaging symptoms; its acceptance in this country bespeaks both the desperation of Alzheimer’s sufferers and the enthusiasm Americans typically show for any quick pharmaceutical fix. Jacoby bears exceptionally eloquent witness to the bitter lies of these bogus treatments, since her longtime partner fell victim to Alzheimer’s before finally succumbing to cancer. She writes movingly of seeing a loved one through the final deterioration of his basic sense of self. “You feel a pain in your gut as you try to accept the limitations of your capacity to make things better for him,” she writes. “And when you fail to resign yourself to your own impotence, you find, like Job, that you curse the day you were born.”

Such brutal fallout from age-related illness is furiously repressed in most public discussions of longevity. And once again, that repression takes deepest root among the boomers. Journalists in this age group typically stampede to the smallest sliver of news suggesting that scientific research and pharmaceutical trials might point to new and better strategies for cheating death. As Jacoby concedes, even she herself has been guilty of such uncritical cheerleading in her career as a correspondent for AARP: The Magazine, a bimonthly published by an advocacy group for people over fifty. At one point, for instance, a flurry of reports asserted that disability rates were declining at an annual rate of about 1 percent among people over sixty-five. Yet two of the most widely cited studies involved surveys that canvassed only non-institutionalized seniors—the very people, in other words, healthy enough to live independently, and therefore pre-selected to report lower rates of debilitating infirmity. “That people living in their own homes have a lower disability rate than those who are institutionalized seems so obvious that it is close to a journalistic felony to have reported the data from these studies without a huge warning flag,” Jacoby writes.

Yet the will to manufacture any semblance of good news about the aging process clearly trumps the claims of empirical truth. And as with the myth of Emily Skinner, this delusion becomes most damaging in sizing up the real fiscal plight of boomer retirees. Many boomers in the Skinner vein saw a big chunk of their personal retirement accounts—and more of their home equity—wiped out in the 2008 crash. As a result, Jacoby writes, it “is hard to see how the two-fifths of boomers at the bottom [of the socioeconomic hierarchy] will ever fully recover. The reason why poor and middle-income boomers lost a much larger percentage of their wealth is that the poorer people are, the more likely it is that their house is their only asset.” Boomers in the top three quintiles of wealth could ride out the market’s convulsions in relative ease. With the stock market’s 2009-2010 rebound, “they could expect (unless they too had huge mortgages exceeding the value of their homes) to recover much of the value of those assets and start making money again. But a struggling homeowner can’t recover an investment in a house that was foreclosed.”

This is to say nothing, of course, of the truly poor ranks of the truly old—another rapidly expanding demographic almost entirely invisible to the chipper longevity-industrial complex. After all, Jacoby argues, research consistently shows that “old people who have benefited most from recent medical advances tend to be those who were dealt a better economic hand at every stage of their lives. Rather than focus on the dubious benefits of increasing longevity through pharmacology or bionic body parts, we would do better to focus as a society on correcting the social inequalities that begin at birth and only intensify with every decade. It is undeniably worse to be poor and sick at eighty than at fifty, but the reasons why it is worse have little to do with ageism and everything to do with more general issues of racial and economic inequality.”

Never Say Die is hardly an exhaustive treatment of its crucial subject. Jacoby devotes two of her closing chapters to the debates over such topics as assisted suicide and the morality of significant life extension—subjects that only touch tangentially on the urgent political and economic questions at the heart of her book. (Indeed, toward the end of the ethics-of-longevity section, she wanders into a reverie about the post-human future, only to concede that “whether humanity might one day evolve into or be forcefully replaced by another species does not seem relevant to the issue of whether it is a good idea to work on extending the human life span.” You don’t say.)

But she is courageously right to insist that the reckonings ahead for aging Americans portend “nothing less than a radical rethinking of the cherished American myth that individuals should be capable of providing for their economic independence throughout their lives.” Boomers, she suggests, will be obliged to shuck off their customary self-infatuation in order to “plan in a more systematic way for old age even as—also paradoxically—they abandon delusions about their capacity to exercise complete control over the circumstance of their final years.”

In Jacoby’s view, this new intergenerational social contract will depend absolutely on the so-called wellderly: “If boomers do not lead the way, no one will.” As I write this, however, older voters disproportionately turned out to support the Tea Party, whose agenda has failed to produce the barest specifics for a program of spending cuts, hewing instead to a spasmodic rejection of government itself. In other words, there seems to be little basis in our political culture to support Jacoby’s scenario.

Still, one can hope that her impassioned, closely argued tract gains a serious hearing among her fellow boomers. Without such counsel, they—and a good deal of the economic order that has long catered to them—will go gently into that good night, in the firm belief that it is forever high noon. 

Chris Lehmann is an editor for Yahoo News, co-editor of BookForum, and a columnist for The Awl. He is also the author of Rich People Things.