Party of One: Acting Your Age

by Thomas Griffith

Jimmy Carter has brought with him the youngest Cabinet since John Kennedy’s. Obviously Carter believes that his own age is just right for tackling something big—ready for responsibility, not yet burned out. Jerry Ford’s Cabinet had a lot of people in it roughly his own age— and he intuitively felt that people of that age have reached the fullness of their powers. We are, in matters of judgment, eager or desperate salesmen of whatever age we happen to be.

This confident view of one’s capacities doesn’t spread across the full length of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, of course, since it includes neither the mewling and puking infant at the beginning, nor the final second childishness, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything"—but it does cover that period in life ranging from one’s twenties to one’s sixties. Whatever age a person may be, he says to himself, isn’t he at that stage a little wiser, less likely to be taken in, than those who are younger? Isn’t he more receptive, more open to new ideas, than those older? Until conspicuous decline tells us all otherwise, we find ourselves each year more experienced in our judgments. And we assign similar merit to those about our own age, against the rest.

For we are all members of cohorts. Not cohorts in the original meaning—those bands of soldiers that formed one tenth of a Roman legion—but in the way that statisticians use the word, to mean all those born in the same year. People of any given birth year—whether 1915, 1930, 1940, or 1955—will seem by the time they become adults to be hopelessly divided across the spectrum of politics, of interests, of occupations. Only in superficial things—such as the power of a cheap tune to stir memories, as Noel Coward remarked—will any cohort seem to be united about anything.

Popular music is a good way of recognizing cohorts, for each has its own anthem. “Stardust” was mine, but since my data base also includes “Three Iddie Fishes.”I’ve never felt all that superior to any succeeding era’s popular tastes. In fact, the middling best of contemporary rock has a musicianship unknown to, say, a middling figure out of my past, Jan Garber, the Idol of the Airwaves. Each succeeding generation’s preference in anthems, and in popular stars, has been comprehensible to me, with the single exception of the Bob Dylan phenomenon. The wide appeal of this sullen troubadour cannot be explained solely in musical terms. “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” hardly exists as music. His followers hear an anthem of generational liberation where I hear only nasal insolence.

Disliking Dylan, I yet recognize in him a power to speak for his cohort. By comparison, the commercial attempts of Tin Pan Alley to capture the mood of a period, from the Depression’s “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?” to wartime’s “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” seem mere contrived sentimentality. Like Dylan, I believe in the under-recognized power, in our society, of the cohort.

It is easy to confuse the shared effect of belonging to a cohort, which is often only a subconscious awareness, with a quite different matter, the active war between the ages. Age rivalry is conspicuous chiefly among the ambitious; it lives in the eagerness of the impatient young, and in the reluctance of the old to surrender place. Just about everyone in public life stays on one season too long; the basketball player slowing down, the beautiful ingenue beginning to show her age, the dancer no longer able to sustain a lift, or the singer a high note—all of them impinging on the memory we want to keep of them at their best. No wonder you often hear the cruel phrase that someone has overstayed his welcome. Bosses overstay their welcome too: they argue quite rightly in their mid-sixties that they have many useful years left in them, which, however, is a different proposition from proving that they are best fitted to continue to guide a corporation.

The time-to-leave signal used to come brutally early for athletes, who were then expected to take up coaching or broadcasting, or to open a bar somewhere. But now that professional sports have become so complicated, a kind of ring-wise knowledge compensates for a physical slowing down, and in pro football quarterbacks are thought to be at the height of their cunning in their mid-thirties.

In fact, some mental skills seem to peak earlier, such as those needed in nuclear physics, where the most brilliantly audacious discoveries are made when one is young. I remember an occasion when J. Robert Oppenheimer. as head of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, was asked about the influence of Albert Einstein, who was in residence. Instead of a gracious tribute to his great scientific contributions, Oppenheimer dismissingly said: “Einstein isn’t in the conversation anymore.” It was as if a once revered but now faltering Heldentenor had been hissed off the stage.

Age, as is well known, has a bad name in America; none of that deferential treatment of venerated sages here, none of that Japanese costume-changing as one grows older, where a man or woman is never more honored than when he or she wears the gray of dignified age. In other days and in other places, aging was a stately process. To the Talmudic fathers, thirty was the age for attaining full strength, forty for understanding, fifty for giving counsel, and sixty for becoming an elder. To Confucius, one’s life-span was much the same though differently expressed: thirty was the age for planting the feet firmly on the ground; forty was when one “no longer suffered from complexities.” At fifty, one knew the biddings of heaven, and at sixty “heard them with docile ear,”Such a tranquil parabola has no home in our Western skies. Thirty beats on the door: forty says I’m overdue; sixty pleads I’m still needed.

Gray-hairs, holding on to their authority, make too much of their superior judgment: their ideas are often no better than the ideas of others, or of themselves at thirty. But, wrapped in the toga of dignity and the aplomb of experience, they have learned to assert themselves more firmly. Assurance is their most valuable weapon. If statesmen like De Gaulle or Adenauer—two assured old codgers— could function vigorously into their eighties, they did so largely by the power of negative thinking. They knew when not to risk all, when not to change too much. They lived also on the power of their earlier vision, and on their reputation, but these were no longer sufficiently encompassing gifts, for by then the grand old men lacked that other essential of leadership, openness to the new. For them at this point, office was a better remedy than Geritol: in action they kept alive and thus avoided the penultimate sourness that overlook Evelyn Waugh, who in his last years came to believe all fates worse than death. In the autobiographical character of Gilbert Pinfold, Waugh bleakly described himself: “His stronger tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.”

We all recognize friends who, to avoid such a misanthropic fate as they grow older, become insistently “with it" in whatever is modish in hairstyles, dancing, music, clothes. Determined not to go gentle into that good night, rightfully fearful of settling down to mere reminiscence and complaint, afraid of losing enthusiasm and curiosity, they force themselves into becoming, and looking, more dynamically young than they are. The trouble is, they are really open not so much to new ideas as to new fashions, and in this treacherous area easily become pathetic parodies, for younger people—protecting what is most exclusively theirs—know how to discover fashions that suit their freshness and youth, and to mock those who would out of season resemble them.

Such are the familiar battle scenes in the unending war between the ages. But I think there is another important way in which the difference in ages, and the parallel behavior of cohorts, greatly influences American life.

Each generation, each cohort even, carries around a different set of intellectual scars, the wounds of its particular history. At some stage in one’s formative life—a period, say, between the ages of fifteen and the mid-thirties—some major event (the Korean War, Kennedy’s assassination) occurs which influences all later attitudes. That same experience, of course, affects in some way everyone alive at the moment, but it strikes with particular force those of an impressionable age.

The biggest of such events, for example Pearl Harbor, extends its effect across a series of cohorts, spreading perhaps across a decade. Some of these events were unexpected blows which had to be overcome (providing an optimistic lesson from history); others began as causes that inspired youthful idealism before leading to disillusionment. Either way, the experience is powerful and remains a defining characteristic. Even when one’s first intense response is modified in time, or repudiated, it remains a key reference point—the platitude we are likely to reach for in deciding something else. And not always a sound guide.

If someone could only codify the defining characteristics of each cohort—or those which a succession of cohorts hold in common—we’d be a lot closer to understanding our times. The Depression generation, for example, maintains a benevolent memory (romanticized now) of a community pulling together to save itself, and of a government working to redress society’s inequities. To Bob Dylan’s cohort thirty years later, society was unjust, government part of the enemy, and its leaders undeserving of respect: that generation’s cynicism about authority lingers long after it has moderated its harsh judgments on society.

Those who fought in World War II remember that experience in a manner incomprehensible to the generation of Vietnam. Watching with amusement old movies on television of hissing Japanese and ruthless Germans, the serviceman of World War II may freely admit to having been taken in a bit by the propaganda laid on so heavily in these films, but recalls, too, his own protective cynicism. He is no historical revisionist: the conviction that Hitler was a menace that the world was well rid of remains that cohort’s secure pride.

Or consider college students of the 1950s. to whom communism was so patently unalluring that they could not understand why the nation could be roused by the demagogic fuss McCarthy made about the dangers of domestic communism. They had not gone through a depression in which capitalism itself seemed unworkable and unjust, an era when socialism and communism were seriously debated as possible alternatives, so that there were still old scores to settle. The discovery of each age’s follies and excesses confirms the next’s feelings of its own superiority.

This is why I do not believe that, as Confucius say, older is better. The mere piling on of experiences makes no one wiser, particularly when succeeding events are judged by an already formed, and sometimes disabling, outlook. The Vietnam engagement lasted as long as the Depression, and it is likely to influence American history just as profoundly. Try selling nowadays the onetime conventional wisdom that in Vietnam, as in Korea, some clear threat to American society had to be met distantly before it came closer. Instead, a new cohort, acquiring its defining attitude from Vietnam, will not easily be persuaded to invoke American military power anywhere: a new inhibiting “wisdom” has been born.

As we lurch from one certainty to its contrary, and as one cohort’s truth becomes another’s rejected truism, these generational layers constantly interact on each other, which is the only way we as a people ever sort anything out. The major learning experience that each cohort carries within itself, coloring all else, is a visceral feeling not responsive to argument. nor easy to escape. It may not be wisdom, but is acted upon as if it were, and applied to situations that are not parallel. This is my difficulty with the Confucian theory of accumulated, aged wisdom. In a time when so much changes so fast, and appraising the place of the new becomes as important as understanding the old, an easy, unencumbered familiarity with the new—such as the young intuitively have—is an advantage; it does not require unlearning the old.

This brings me back to Jimmy Carter, who, as a candidate, with his constant polling of public opinion, so successfully mirrored our prevailing confusions as to portray himself as a man of caution, committed to change. What won for him, despite all the shifts and obfuscations in his own attitudes, was the country’s felt need for change, and its readiness to try a new cohort.

Carter’s own major formative experience was probably the civil rights movement, which became a disenchanting adventure to many youthful northern whites who participated in it, but a necessary, liberating reform to those in the South like Carter who accepted it. Carter was also, in his Annapolis and Navy days, obviously much marked by the cohorts of World War II, and will find himself shortly out of sync with the cohort that has succeeded the civil rights movement, that Vietnam generation with its angry disillusionment and its scorn of patriotism. Carter may worry about the Pentagon’s inefficiency, but he does not basically question the military’s role. Some of these shadings among cohorts are going to become very significant now that we’ve moved a decade younger in those who govern us.