[Editor’s note: This piece appeared originally September 1, 2018]
There’s no denying the fact: roughly half of baby boomers are now senior citizens. But as BoomerCafé co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs writes, age obviously is more than just an illusion, but it also can be just a state of mind.
I know how old 72 sounds to young people because I know how old it sounded to me when I was one of them. There was even a time when I probably would not have gotten in a car with a 72-year-old man behind the wheel. Old eyes, bad ears, slower reaction times and all the rest.
Now, I get in that car every time I leave home. Because now, I’m that man.
Age is a funny thing. As baby boomers and therefore one of the oldest generations still roaming the earth, we all know that the longer you live, the more you’ve seen and the more you’ve learned. Yet we also know that the older you get, at least in some segments of society, the less respect you are accorded for all that wisdom you’ve collected.
There is a law school in San Francisco — Hastings College of the Law, an arm of the University of California — that used to understand all that. For more than 30 years, until age discrimination laws took root at other schools, its professors were unique. They were judges and attorneys who’d been forced to retire elsewhere because they’d turned 65. Hastings opened its arms to these sage senior citizens. They brought backgrounds that younger professors could not pretend to have. The dean of Harvard’s law school said Hastings probably had “the strongest law faculty in the nation.”
My own claims to strength might not reflect great wisdom, but they do reflect a passion to do what I like to do, senior status notwithstanding. That, for instance, is why I still ski. In fact, I ski on a monoski (which younger people seem to think is cool enough that they call me “dude,” and trust me, there is no place else on the planet where anyone calls me “dude”).
I even work during the Winter as an arm of ski patrol at the Vail Ski Resort, spending most of the day either responding to radio calls or just cruising the slopes, searching for people with problems (my supervisor’s advice: ski with your head on a swivel). I sometimes joke that I keep my helmet and goggles on tightly so the people I’m helping don’t know that the guy bailing them out is twice their age.
Funny thing is, heading home after a strenuous shift on the slopes, I get on a bus where typically there are signs over the seats saying something like, “Please surrender your seat to senior citizens.” Every once in a while, someone does. Which I decline. How can I make them stand when I was just out there skiing, myself?
Cycling’s the same. Last month I wrote for BoomerCafé about my eight days in Italy, biking in the Dolomites with a group mostly around my age, climbing the steepest mountain passes I’ve ever climbed (grades as sharp as 18%). I cycle a lot where I live in Colorado, but our passes feel almost flat by comparison. I would have thought — maybe you would have thought — that by one’s seventies, such physical feats would be beyond reach.
But depending on your frame of mind — and of course on your physical condition too — they’re not. It’s just a matter of how you handle two things. First, everyone’s body erodes; that’s why major league athletes often are past their prime and washed up by their mid-30s. So certainly by my age, I have to accept that I’m not as strong as I used to be. But the question isn’t how I’m doing against someone younger; the question is, how am I doing for my age?
And second, every 365 days, all of us (if we’re lucky) turn a year older. Here too, the question isn’t whether I should read the calendar and say, “Well, I guess I’m too old for this now.” The question is, do I have to abide by the calendar as if some magical number — say, 72 — means I should change the way I live? The answer, of course, is no.
I represent the first year of our baby boomer generation. Ten years ago, those of us on the leading edge of the generation prided ourselves on thinking, “60 is the new 40.” Now it’s “72 is the new 50.”
That’s the body. If it supports a younger lifestyle, why not?! And the mind? Well, while some in their 70s already show signs of dementia or worse, most still don’t. I make speeches about our national security on the behalf of the Denver-based Counterterrorism Education Learning Lab, and so far, no one has said I’m not making sense. To the contrary, after 40-plus years covering security issues around the world, I might make more sense than some speaker half my age. Just like those law professors at Hastings.
True, I don’t have the energy any more to actually cover news around the world as I did for so long. I watch network foreign correspondents these days (those few who are left), bouncing from country to country and continent to continent, and my only reaction is, “I’m sure glad I’m not doing that.” But I’m not a doddering fool either. Sure, some people my age are but then again, some people half my age are too.
So take no pity that I’m in my seventies. As they say, it’s way better than the alternative. And if someone much younger sees me on a bus and offers me a seat, I’ll say thank you but probably turn them down. They’re likely just as tired as I am.
But enough of all this writing about age. I’m going out to ride my bike.