November 19, 2018

The ‘Boomer Rebellion’

My grandparents never lived to reach the age of 64, as I recently did. They were dead in their 50s, murdered by chopped liver, corned beef, kishke and schmaltz — a pale yellow goo of chicken fat that was used like butter at almost every meal. 

A few decrepit relatives did straggle on into their 60s, but the daily sedentary boredom of playing the card game Kaluki seriously diminished their physical and mental capacities. Aside from being wheeled into the occasional bar mitzvah or wedding, they were pretty much done with life.

None of them could ever have imagined that their gene pool would produce progeny like me. I’m the gray-haired guy sweating profusely through a hot yoga class four days a week. Among the swami photos in this crowded room in Studio City, I am surrounded by young would-be actors and their lithe, sexy, muscular bodies. 

During the first down dog, my knees crack, upsetting everybody’s meditative silence. At the ending shavasana, my labored breaths override the soothing silence. But aside from these disruptive noises, I am utterly unnoticeable — absolutely invisible — to my younger classmates. On the rare occasion that a wrinkle-free millennial happens to cast an irritated glance in my direction, I beam back my most blissful yogi smile, silently thinking, “Let’s see if you’re still doing this at my age.”

Participating in a hot yoga class isn’t all that my grandparents’ generation would have thought impossible. They wouldn’t have dared believe that a person their age could someday rise up, refuse to be victimized by a destroyed economy and make the transition to a new professional path. Or that members of their age group would be updating their brains, becoming facile with new and constantly evolving methodologies as they learn to engage with and navigate a changed world. 

They certainly couldn’t have pictured pouring their anger and energy into inspiring an uprising among their generation to take back their rightful place in society, where they would demand respect for their wisdom, skills and innovative creativity. And they couldn’t have conceived of anyone older than 60 having the power to shake up a new generation’s belief systems.

The Great Recession of these last several years, even if it is officially “over,” has changed so much for so many. This economic disaster forced legions of the boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964 — to abandon their plans for retirement. In our 60s, some of us are now valiantly struggling to re-create our savings and ourselves. It is the biggest challenge of our lives and careers.

I am one of those people.

I didn’t see it coming. I had a 40-year career in marketing, communications and advertising, where at times I was a superstar. When I started out, I was one of the hippest young guys in town, working in the world’s top ad agencies, creating award-winning campaigns for Fortune 500 clients such as Apple and Coca-Cola. 

When I finally felt secure enough in my early 40s to de-hip myself, I transitioned out of the ad world and into the nonprofit sector, where I learned a whole new field. Now, with a nonprofit marketplace for my skills, I built another agency and traveled extensively, working closely with some of the most influential and passionate people on the planet. 

In my mid-50s, I transitioned again, this time from agency owner to consultant. I took great risks to convince self-made business people, the kind who donate millions of dollars to causes, that I understood the path to their philanthropic success. Through all these transitional ups and downs in my career, I was always in demand and never lacked for work.

Then I turned 60.

That’s when everything changed. Soon after, the Great Recession hit my income. I had never faced the kind of professional challenge these two simultaneous events presented.

The nonprofit spigot turned off. It no longer paid the kinds of fees I had been commanding, and turned to the hordes of young people who were coming into the job marketplace and who knew how to work and navigate social marketing sites. Nonprofits believed that these young people with their social marketing skills possessed all the knowledge necessary for a new world — plus, they could be hired for peanuts.

Although reality kept staring me in the face, I kept on fighting … until the first of a series of wake-up calls knocked me over. Eventually, I understood the gravity of what was being communicated, both directly and through nuance:

I was considered old.

I was perceived as irrelevant.

The economy had crashed and I had been replaced by 22-year-olds. 

There I was, in my early 60s. I was not wealthy. I could not yet afford to retire, nor did I want to. I had planned on and looked forward to working for many more years. I had never anticipated that at this stage in my life, I would need to head into yet another professional transition. And I knew that if this was happening to me, it was happening to others like me. There had to be other boomers, particularly in creative professions, staring down the barrel of the same fate.

What followed over the next four years involved fear, panic, jealousy, exhaustion, depression, emergence, challenge, learning, discovery, transition and triumph. These years of transition have been the hardest and most challenging of my life. Yet, they have produced the greatest personal growth, propelling me to learn and excel in ways I never thought possible. 

This has all taken me places I never thought I would go. I have emerged as a university adjunct professor whose reputation is soaring and whose classes have waiting lists. I am also the COO of a global initiative on a university campus, reaching out to Fortune 500 companies. A blogger with a huge following. An author. A seminar facilitator. None of it would have been possible without this struggle and a refusal to be victimized by my age and by the misguided perceptions of a younger generation.

Yet, millions of my fellow baby boomers who have plenty to offer society are still stuck and disregarded. Although the economy is bouncing back, boomers have been labeled as too old and irrelevant to be an integral part of this recovery. 

We have lost several years during this recession as young people moved in. Millennial leaders increasingly regard us as fossils. They believe we are too technologically befuddled to participate dynamically in this new era of creativity. Tweets, posts, downloads, Instagrams and links trump experience and wisdom. 

Investment for startups goes to young people. Philanthropic funding goes to them, too. It’s as if we don’t have value, stamina, ambition or sense of purpose. We are treated as if we are already decrepit, slowly being murdered by a pernicious new form of schmaltz and chopped liver.

This is all a gross injustice that is being perpetrated upon millions of active people and expansive minds of my generation. We are being thrown out, way before the expiration date! Our politicians say that the economic comeback means that Americans are once again poised to lead the world in so many arenas, but shouldn’t we also be leading the world to understand the big ideas and the possibility that older people can contribute to society on so many levels? 

The lasting legacy of the boomers does not have to be only the ’60s. It can also be how we returned to our rebellious and soulful roots in our later years and created a Boomer Rebellion that changed the world forever.

Here’s the question: Does my generation have what it takes to pull off a rebellion at this stage in life?

We do.

Look around. We are radically altering the aging landscape. We flock to cross-training and meditation retreats, attend Wisdom 2.0 conferences in Silicon Valley. We return to psychotherapy and drink wheatgrass juice and four cups of green tea a day. Chicken fat spread has been replaced with a testosterone spread for men’s armpits. Kishke casing injected with a puffy filling has been replaced by collagen injections for women’s lips. 

Those of us now in our 60s come from the generation of the ’60s. We saw possibility then, and we see possibility now. We changed the world once. Boldly. Powerfully. Pervasively. Globally. And just think — we did it all without technology! We did it based on our value system. OK, so we also did it with a lot of sex and drugs, but I’ll bet you those were more energizing and stimulating forces than Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

We need to return to our ’60s roots and find a current way to apply our generation’s culture, the one that changed the world then, to change the world again. We need to do it for ourselves and for all future generations as they age, too.

We are different from my grandparents’ generation because we are a generation in constant pursuit of what it takes to remain vibrant:

Our minds are absorbing the ways of a new world. Our knowledge is growing. Our wisdom is increasing. Our creativity is flourishing.

We adapt. We are filled with possibility. We have vision. We have goals. We have dreams. We have power.

According to National Public Radio reporter Ina Jaffe, we represent approximately 20 percent of the population. We account for about 50 percent of all consumer spending and control about 60 percent of the country’s disposable income. Yet, a quarter of us are struggling.

No matter our age, we have much life ahead of us. We are not giving up. This rebellion is ours to seize.

Gary Wexler is executive manager of The Third Space Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the author of the recently released “Sorry, Millennials, We’re Not Dead Yet: The Boomer Rebellion.” This edited excerpt is reprinted with permission.