Virtual Voices

Growing out of our cult of youth

Culture

It's 2011. Three score and five years ago, our mothers brought forth a new generation, a big generation, a baby boom that has now started entering retirement. Soldiers returning from the war in 1945 started having kids in 1946. They've been the center of our attention ever since, whether we've liked it or not.

Even The New York Times marked the event with "Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65":

"According to the Pew Research Center, for the next 19 years, about 10,000 people 'will cross that threshold' every day-and many of them, whether through exercise or Botox, have no intention of ceding to others what they consider rightfully theirs: youth."

So it is fitting that the man to bring in that 65th New Year should be Dick Clark, who for decades never seemed to age. Even now, with the right camera angle, he looks nowhere near his 81 years.

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Clark, who came to be known as "America's oldest living teenager," began his national celebrity as the host of American Bandstand, a baby boomer teenybopper TV favorite that aired from 1957 to 1987. He began hosting Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve in 1972, an annual show that has brought America to New York's Times Square to watch the ball drop every New Year's Eve since then except 1999. In December 2004, Clark suffered a debilitating stroke. Since then, Ryan Seacrest has taken over most of the New Year's Eve hosting duties as Clark has slowly but impressively regained speaking ability and arm and hand motion.

I had been completely unaware of Clark's recent travails. But I was struck by what I saw last Friday night.

At first I thought his inclusion in the show for the countdown was a welcome departure from the cult of youth and of fleeting pleasure that so dominates televised New Year celebrations. Here they were, honoring an octogenarian stroke survivor, allowing the ugliness of creeping death to intrude on their revelry for the sake of respect for a grand old man. He did a remarkably good job considering how far he's had to come in the last six years.

But upon reflection (and prodding from my wife), I became convinced that his appearance was actually a metaphor for a vain culture and a self-absorbed generation. The baby boomers have been the center of everyone's attention since they were born, beginning with the publication of Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care in 1946 and up to the present barrage of pharmaceutical ads for people whose parts don't work the way they once did, including Viagra and meds for "Low T" that enable 60-year-old men to carry on like teenagers. (It's remarkable that their preoccupation with perpetually extended adolescence has made it entirely acceptable even to mention such products on prime time television.)

Dick Clark is how they have seen themselves over the years, the Dorian Gray in all their mirrors. They've been true to Roger Daltrey's generational cry, "Hope I die before I get old," but only by denying that they're ever getting old. The Pew study tells us that "the typical Boomer feels nine years younger than his or her chronological age" and thinks old age begins at 72. They've made it our standard practice to speak of the aged as being so many "years young."

Like the generation he has hosted for the last 50-some years, Dick Clark has not aged gracefully as a grand old man does. In fact, he has defined himself against it. Though not himself a baby boomer, he has spent his life preening, tucking, and tanning to preserve himself the way we've always remembered him.

But on the boomers' last New Year's Eve before retirements start, the man who seemed to embody their hope of living "forever young" flashed-unintentionally it seemed-the reminder that, like the irresistible advance of each new year, death comes to all men (Romans 5:12). Socrates saw philosophy, the best human life, as a preparation for death. The Psalmist wrote, "Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12). Perhaps one day we will return to the view that "Gray hair is a crown of glory," and that the fullness of its glory "is gained in a righteous life" (Proverbs 16:31).

Happy New Year.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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