When (the non-boomer) Bob Dylan wanted to warn America that the times, they are a-changin,’ he addressed himself to “mothers and fathers.” The “sons and your daughters,” he warned:
“...are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand...”
Now, though, two generations have passed. Dylan is selling computers on television, and the kids who gobbled up his records are grandparents who find themselves trying to make sense of the stuff on the radio. Like their parents, boomers find themselves facing an old road, rapidly aging, and will—sooner rather than later—need a hand.
So what if all the concern about boomers’ divisions over race and love and peace are the wrong war at the wrong place and the wrong time? What if the next boomers’ great, culture war is about time itself?
“Every day, the postwar generation wakes up one day older,” says Bill Thomas, MD, a New York gerontologist and sometimes bane to the long term care profession. “And that keeps happening, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

‘A Cultural Black Hole’

Thomas, who still sports the beard and Birkenstocks of his youth (and still refers to interlocutors as “man”) has nonetheless changed his tune in recent years. From being a self-described “nursing home abolitionist,” Thomas is now an executive with MainStreet Inc. But the hope still lives and the dream shall never die: As Thomas sees it, the aging of the boomers isn’t just the next front in its ongoing culture wars—it’s the entire theater of operations.

Bill Thomas“What really sets the postwar generation apart is its incredible density, demographically,” he says. “Really, roughly speaking, within 15 years, 80 million people arrived on the scene. It makes that generation something like a cultural neutron star, a cultural black hole. They began to distort the culture around it.”

And that, more than anything, helps explain why “The Sixties” is still such a loaded phrase, Thomas says.
“What made the sixties and seventies so fraught is that you had to get 80 million people into adulthood without any cultural ceremonies—they had to figure it out by themselves. So what do you think was going to happen? It felt like the wheels were falling off,” he says.

Adulthood To ‘Elderhood’

One of the many problems with the boomers’ adolescence and early adulthood is that “all of the cultural touchstones focused on youth.”

“The reality is, we are defined by our youthfulness,” he says. “This postwar generation—they don’t know what to make out of life after adulthood. Now, the postwar generation is beginning to struggle with the idea that they won’t be powerful, influential adults. So here we are: The last time we were in this place, people were trying to figure out how to get out of childhood and into adulthood. The fracturing is coming back and is going to be culturally relevant again.”

Thomas has coined the phrase “elderhood” for what some folks euphemistically call “the golden years.” He seeks to do for elders what the once-radical notions such as “early childhood development” did for kids.

“This whole aging context is all defined by adulthood,” he says.

The ageism of American society has become so ingrained in boomers that, just as fish don’t see the water they swim in, many boomers don’t see how they’re marginalizing their elders and, increasingly, themselves, Thomas says.
“Just look at stories where you see the word ‘still,’” he says. “‘Still’ is used as a way to discipline older people: ‘He still does mergers and acquisitions. She still drives.’ It sounds like a compliment, but it’s ‘still’ this orthodoxy that youth is better than age.”

Lynne Katzmann is the president and founder of Juniper Communities, and herself an unrepentant radical from The Sixties. She says she agrees with Thomas’ basic premise about their cohort’s attitudes toward aging.

“We’re very fearful of growing older,” she says. “We don’t like what we see. We can’t face our own mortality if we’re afraid of aging. The boomers have a challenge. They can’t just come in and say, ‘We want we want’ if we’re not sure ourselves. For all of those many reasons, I don’t think we’ve gotten involved in the political discussion about what we want, and how we want it, as we age—not yet.”

The “yet” is key, though, Katzmann adds. Just last year, conservative Louisiana changed its governor and expanded Medicaid, for instance.

Meanwhile, private-pay clients (mostly, boomers who are the adult children of residents) are driving new trends in everything from dining to architecture in nursing care and assisted living centers. For Katzmann, that’s an indication that reality is setting in that boomers want a different kind of elderhood than previous generations, even if it costs more.

“I do think you’re seeing the boomers begin to change what we provide,” she says.

If boomers seem mystifyingly unprepared for their elder years, it may be because of the density that Thomas alludes to, Katzmann says. But it’s also a generation that, whatever its missteps or blunders, somehow manages to get what it wants, in the end.

“I think boomers do see things in personal terms. We relate to the world through our own eyes, because that’s our reference point,” she says. “The question is, how open are boomers to the rest of the world?”