I have a friend who’s convinced that about 10 years ago, everybody on TV became 35 years old. Not in fact, but from the standpoint of what they were supposed to represent. Watch a TV commercial now for a home cleaning product; the humans utilizing the miracle spray are either older people who look young or younger people who look old. The product makers want both groups to respond. As the cast of Friends began aging, they set the template on this. Milking those last few seasons for more money, they certainly weren’t 30 anymore but they couldn’t be 40, so…
This shift had no new impact on the denizens of L.A. who for decades now have been dedicated to anything that repels age or more accurately distracts from it. Skin surgically tightened so that it literally shines doesn’t make you think someone is young, but it throws you off enough that you quit worrying about the person’s age. You become more concerned about their mental well-being and why they’ve turned the face they were born with into an all-flesh Halloween mask.
In the May 21 L.A. Times, Clint Eastwood spoke to film critic Kenneth Turan about the great film directors Frank Capra and Billy Wilder. Eastwood first met Capra when Capra was in his 70’s. Eastwood observed that Capra “seemed like such a vital guy, his brain cooking on all eight cylinders. You could tell the same story about Billy Wilder, you could go on and on. That could have been such a productive time for them. People have their peak at different times in life.” Eastwood hasn’t had time to consider a peak since he’s been too busy making critically acclaimed films. He turned 78 last month.
The vagaries of film financing and faith in Hollywood talent late in life may not directly apply to a larger point about the population bubble about to enter their senior years, but it’s worth noting that less glamorous industries such as auto making are now looking at hiring new older skilled workers … because it will be cheaper than keeping the younger ones they are laying off. Add to that the fact that if a gallon of gas and a loaf of bread are going to cost ten bucks each, fewer workers will be retiring at any particular age. Now you begin to see a vision of near-future America that includes a lot of white hair growing out of people’s ears and nostrils and perhaps ending up in your Starbucks.
Nobody ever doubted a day would come when there would be a lot of old baby boomers doing whatever old baby boomers might do, possibly visiting the new Woodstock Museum or developing cocktail recipes that blend vodka with Ensure. What might soon surprise us is the number of oldsters still on the job, highly visible, contributing wage taxes and generally keeping the economy moving in ways other than buying jelly shoe insoles.
Of course Eastwood was addressing the fact that, too often, older artists are kept from working later in life because it’s assumed that their ideas no longer have traction. It’s one thing to fret about age discrimination as it pertains to giants of cinema, and quite another to contemplate it happening to a huge sub-nation of viable aging workers. Will those “Help Wanted” signs in windows soon include language like “Good Knees a Must” or “Some Hearing Required”?
We may already be witnessing an integration of aging workers unlike anything we’ve seen before with the possible exception of the talent on 60 Minutes. I see it in retail, where the department store jobs that bore youthful workers are quite interesting to 40-plus workers who may be struggling after a downsizing or just looking to return to the workforce. When you ask about the merchandise, they make an effort to find answers. When it’s time to ring up your purchase, they push the store credit and discount card programs with cheery exuberance. They’re sincerely glad you bought something… from them.
With more oldsters pushing the buttons and working the fields of our economy, maybe there will be less overall envy of youth and less sting to aging. That may bring the change advertisers have long yearned for: A more homogeneous consumer base with fewer relevant demographic divisions. All ages wearing plastic Croc shoes. Black t-shirts and hip little eyewear on men from 30 to 80. Mike Myers movies avoided by people of all ages. See? It’s already happening!
It won’t all be pretty and balanced. Regardless of how fair the fight, John McCain may go reaching for an “ageism” rationale when he is defeated in November. And all the handguns in Washington DC won’t get me into a theater for The First Wives Club 2: Still Kvetching After All These Years. But the time in America when older people hid in the shadows and gracefully stepped out of the way may be ending. It appears Clint Eastwood will keep making movies until somebody tries to stop him. I wouldn’t want to be the young studio Turk who contemplates taking the shot and then hears, “Are you feeling lucky, punk?”