By Harry R. Moody
A few years ago, I had what seemed like a great idea. I began to think seriously about disillusionment, both my own and what it might mean about aging. So I did a bit of research, and put together a poster session on the subject for the Gerontological Society of America’s annual conference. I was excited and eager to share with others my thinking on this subject.
I had given many presentations at conferences on aging, but this session turned out to be unique: I sat on a chair at my poster session for two hours and not a single person came by. Not one. Talk about disillusionment! Instead of talking about it, I had experienced it. It was disillusioning that so few gerontologists wanted to visit this “shadow” side of ourselves.
In pondering this experience, I realized that people don’t always want to look at “shadow” elements. Throughout our society, aging itself is such an element: a threat to our sense of ourselves. I also thought of Trotsky’s famous statement about war: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” (Walzer, 2000). So it is with disillusionment: you may not be interested in disillusionment, but, for aging baby boomers, disillusionment will be interested in you.
Some experience disillusionment at younger ages, but if we live long enough, it is inevitable. Many expectations—about people, institutions, even our own goals—will be disappointed and we will wonder why. Without disillusionment—that is, seeing through our false expectations—there can be no wisdom in later life. So, despite the non-existent turnout for my poster session, I will argue that gerontologists need to be interested in understanding disillusionment, particularly as it relates to the aging baby boomers, who will be reshaping our attitudes toward later life.
From Great Expectations to the Shores of Golden Pond
It is not an accident that the first big popular book about baby boomers was called Great Expectations: America & the Baby Boom Generation (Jones, 1980). The postwar period of baby boomer childhood and adolescence seemed to embody a story of progress, an expectation that the future would be better, that each generation would live better than those before. True, in the lives of the baby boomers, the expectation of progress was disrupted by urban riots and the Vietnam War. But hope reached a peak with the 1969 moon landing, a confirmation of progress reflected in the later popularity of Star Trek. The baby boomers, after the 1990s, experienced the coming of the Internet and the World Wide Web, more proof of better living through technology. In later decades, global American dominance in technology-based companies (i.e., Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon) would continue to hold out the promise of optimism and progress.
But this collective story about hope and progress has its dark side. My former boss, Dr. Robert N. Butler, used to wonder what it would be like, in his words, “when the [baby] boomers reached Golden Pond.” For many of them, it looks like Golden Pond may be drying up (global warming?), and there is an understandable temptation to turn the pond into a gated community, to keep away outsiders (immigrants?).
We in the field of aging, like other Americans, love happy talk about aging: Successful Aging, Productive Aging, Positive Aging, and so on. When bad things happen, we look for resilience and “decrement with compensation” (i.e., how declines in cognitive ability may be compensated for by the expertise acquired through age). When life satisfaction goes down, we look for an explanation through mental health or social structure: something we can change, interventions that will fix the problem.
But isn’t it possible that a measure of disillusionment is inevitable if we live long enough? Isn’t it possible that interventions and explanations are not what we need at all? Are we willing to face the truth, if that truth includes the shadow as well as the light?
I thought of Carl Jung’s statement: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious” (Jung, 1945). Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom put it this way: “Everyone—and that includes therapists as well as patients—is destined to experience not only the exhilaration of life, but also its inevitable darkness: Disillusionment, aging, illness, isolation, loss, meaninglessness, painful choices, and death” (Yalom, 2009).
We now begin to understand better what that disillusionment means. Disillusionment is not the same thing as disappointment or regret (Landman, 1993). It is a deeper existential loss of confidence in institutions and in those values, principles, and practices upon which we have based our lives (Wheelis, 2000; Guttmann, 2005).
Here’s the paradox. Disillusionment may not be a bad thing. It can be a good thing, even the path to freedom and personal growth. There is no better example than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is the story of an aged Ebenezer Scrooge who, in a single night, faces the darkness in himself. He comes out of that journey a changed man. His radical disillusionment, once transformed, becomes the basis for a celebration of life. Could this tale represent a paradigm for aging baby boomers?
Boomer Disillusionment: Is It All an Illusion?
What about baby boomers as they confront later life? Are they disillusioned? This cohort includes two big segments: a first wave (born 1946 to 1954) and a second wave (born 1955 to 1964). These are arbitrary boundaries, of course, and I identify with first-wave baby boomers (though I was born in 1945). The youngest baby boomers are in their mid 50s, and the oldest are already older than age 70. Those numbers are clear enough. But how can we know how many aging baby boomers are disillusioned? Are there reliable surveys that can tap into how they see themselves?
Along with the economists, we can start with some facts and behavior: for example, the 2016 election results. A clear majority of those older than age 45 (53 percent from exit polls) voted for Donald Trump, and Trump’s campaign was clearly pitched to those who were profoundly disillusioned with life in America today. By contrast, the nation’s younger voters (ages 18 to 45) were more hopeful: they voted in exactly the opposite proportions for Hillary Clinton. It appears that a clear majority of older voters were unhappy—let’s say disillusioned—with American life today.
Trump supporters—and that means the majority of baby boomers and other older voters—seemed to accept the idea that the world has become a dangerous place, with threats from crime, terrorism, immigration, globalization, and much, much more. When asked, “Do you expect life for the next generation of Americans to be worse than today?” the Trump voters answered “worse” (at 63 percent) compared to Clinton voters (at 31 percent). For Trump voters, fear of immigration was a big issue (64 percent compared to 32 percent for Clinton) (The Washington Post, 2016). The message here is very much related to disillusionment among aging baby boomers. Institutions and values on which people have based their lives can no longer be counted on for the future. We find it harder to reconcile our expectations with how things are turning out.
Let’s look at disillusionment in more personal terms. Let’s talk about death and disability, for instance. For the oldest of baby boomers (age 71), the probability of death next year (for males) is 2.5 percent (per the Social Security actuarial tables). But, according to the Gompertz Law of human mortality, the likelihood of mortality doubles roughly every eight years (5 percent, 10 percent, 20 percent, and so on). Anyone older than age 70 knows these statistics by personal experience—through loss of friends and family.
What about disability? Some advocates in aging still believe in the “Four Percent Fallacy” (maybe they didn’t get the memo). The truth is that well over half of baby boomers will need long-term-care services (in some form), and they’ll find these hard to pay for. Private long-term-care insurance covers only a miniscule proportion of this cohort, and the vast majority of companies offering long-term-care insurance have retreated from the market over the past decade. (Medicaid, anyone?) There are also elements of disability involving diminished cognitive capacity (mainly, fluid intelligence) and declines in visual and auditory power, as well as joint and bone impairment (arthritis, osteoporosis), which increases with age.
Despite happy talk about aging, it remains congruent with what the Buddha saw when he left the protected palace and discovered what his guardians had tried to keep him from seeing: the facts of aging, sickness, and death. As a valuable monograph on disillusionment and psychotherapy (Teitelbaum, 1999) put it cogently: “As we get older the acids of life force us to recognize unpleasant truths about the human condition such as aging, decline of functioning, illness, and mortality. Thus it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain one’s illusions about [having] endless time to attain future goals and to ignore one’s limitations.”
No wonder no one showed up for my poster session. Was I telling a story they didn’t want to hear? The Danish author Isak Dinesen once said: “All the sorrows of life are bearable if only we can convert them into a story.” Are we perhaps telling the wrong story about old age—namely, that we can “fix” it?
Disillusionment: The Cohort and Period Effects
Our approach to disillusionment so far has focused on age effects. But according to the age-period-cohort analytic framework, we need to consider some elements with a historical dimension: cohort effects and period effects. Cohort effects are key, because baby boomers, in both waves, comprise a specific historical cohort. Baby boomers grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of burgeoning prosperity. In 1945, the gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States was half of the GDP of the world. The great question for postwar decades would be how to make sure that affluent society continued its upward trajectory.
We cannot easily generalize about all members of any cohort, but we can point to overarching themes. The sixties counterculture promoted the ideal of “Do your own thing” and “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Did baby boomers internalize this individualistic and anti-aging ethic? People on both the left and right subscribe to the ideal of autonomy, in different forms: culture (for the left) and the marketplace (for the right). But the appeal of individualism and autonomy covers a wide spectrum and dominates our discourse, including our aspirations for old age. If they internalize age rejection (“Don’t trust anyone over 30”), is it surprising that anti-aging medicine is popular among aging baby boomers?
When we come to the current historical period—say, since 2000—we find a darker mood. We can point to marker events—September 11, 2001, or the Great Recession of 2008— which inaugurated the dominant mood of the period: fear and loss of control. German sociologist Ulrich Beck has described this global mood as the “Risk Society” (Beck, 1998). The psychological correlate of vulnerability and risk is disillusionment: institutions we counted on to protect us have failed. No wonder some found it appealing to “Make America Great Again.”
The Great Recession was not only an aggregate economic shock: it depressed home equity values and frightened the baby boomers away from equity investment. Loss of confidence continues: aging baby boomers may rightly wonder, could the Great Recession happen again? Could it be worse? Who can prevent it? These shocks came on top of long-term decline in defined benefit pension plans and poor saving for retirement. Current period effects also include persistently low interest rates and a government credibility crisis—the 2016 election was only the latest example of it. The principle of cumulative advantage and disadvantage means that some well-off baby boomers have been able to prosper. But forces of economic inequality have pushed larger numbers into greater risk and vulnerability. Many aging baby boomers tell pollsters they expect to work longer and postpone retirement. But weakness in the labor market, combined with age discrimination and health problems faced by people as they age, make this an option unlikely to solve economic problems.
Epidemiologists tell us that, as group, baby boomers are in worse overall health than preceding generations at the same age. Despite reduction in cardiovascular disease, aging baby boomers face chronic conditions reflecting obesity and poor diet; lack of exercise; and mental health problems. In recent years, we have heard more about opioid addiction and mortality (now close to the level for automobile accidents). Depression and higher suicide rates for older men are also part of the picture. Rising divorce rates and more single households come at a time of diminished social capital when more and more of us are “Bowling Alone” (Putnam, 2001). If the three most important elements for successful aging come down to health, wealth, and social support, it appears aging baby boomers are headed for three strikes when they come up to bat in old age. No wonder we see disillusionment, with the prospect of more to come.
Living the ‘Given Life’: Disillusionment and Taking Responsibility
If disillusionment is such a paramount problem of our time, reflecting multiple elements of age, period, and cohort, then why is gerontology uninterested in it? My best guess is because the challenge of disillusionment lies at the intersection of psychology and history: of what Erik Erikson (1975) called “life history and the historical moment.” We cannot look primarily at individual agency or psychology, as ideas of life span development tend to do. Nor can we look at large structural elements of political economy without attending to the way in which we navigate our lives under threat of risk. The current epidemic of disillusionment is global and reflects a profound misalignment between rising longevity and population aging, on the one hand, and structural elements that promote greater subjective risk for individuals over the life course.
Wendell Berry said, “We live the given life, and not the planned” (Berry, 1999). Growing up, baby boomers had great expectations for the life they had planned. Even in the sixties, when some institutions failed them, there was an expectation that protest and activism could make the world better. All protest is based on hope, and sometimes that hope was fulfilled. But in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, we are witnessing, on a global scale, a mood of disillusionment that deserves deeper attention from gerontologists, because our historical period— the life we are given, not the life we have planned—coincides with a shift toward population aging. The aging of the baby boomers is a notable sign of this shift and members of this cohort, both individually and collectively, will face the challenge of how to convert their experience into a story that makes sense.
Disillusionment is ultimately a “crisis of meaning” in the sense described by Viktor Frankl (2006). The experience of disillusionment and despair is a moment when aging baby boomers will have to confront deep questions of personal responsibility never stated better than by Frankl, speaking of what he learned in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany: “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
How to find “the right answer” to the problems we find in the life we are given, not the life we have planned? Baby boomers’ disillusionment is not surprising, and, as I’ve argued, its sources are many—age, cohort, and historical period. All are parts of the story. But explaining the phenomenon may be less important than, as Frankl says, taking responsibility. We will only do that by helping aging baby boomers find a new story, one that not only makes sorrows bearable, but also converts our experience into hope for future generations.
Harry R. Moody, Ph.D., is a visiting scholar in the Creative Longevity and Wisdom project at Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara, California. His newsletter, Human Values in Aging, is available upon request; e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Editor’s Note: This article is taken from the Summer 2017 issue of ASA’s quarterly journal, Generations, an issue devoted to the topic “Aging and Oral Health.” ASA members receive Generations as a membership benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions or single copies of issues at our online store. Full digital access to current and back issues of Generations is also available (and free of charge to ASA members and Generations subscribers) at Ingenta Connect.