Watching Idols and Icons Die

An article in yesterday’s New York Times chronicled the recent “funereal season” that has seen the passage of such players on the national stage as Walter Cronkite, Les Paul, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Ted Kennedy and Patrick Swayze. Add to that the death this week of singer Mary (“Peter, Paul and Mary”) Travers. Although Times writer Sarah Kershaw noted that no more celebrities died this summer than in summers past, a couple of other elements are in play: the particular folks who departed the stage in recent months did so just as Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age, and they were the people who “defined (the Boomers) as a tribe, bequeathing through music, culture, news and politics as a kind of generational badge that has begun to fray.”

Generational badge-fraying is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as one wears the badge lightly on the pocket and occasionally notices which threads are coming loose, in fact, I maintain it is downright healthy. Contemplation of our terminal condition could do most of us a lot of good.

(Specifically, a few of those Boomers who have been putting off getting their advance directives done (OK, I see your eyes glazing over, but stick with me here) will start thinking about doing so. Or at the very least, have a little talk with their significant others about how long they’d like to be kept on life support if they have a stroke tomorrow. Getting this done today leaves tomorrow for enjoying everything else. Plus, it encourages calm; see below.)

Walter Cronkite wound up a long and happy life at 93. But Ted Kennedy was 77, one year older than yours truly. Farrah Fawcett was 62. Patrick Swayze, 57; Michael Jackson, 50. DJ AM Adam Goldstein was 36. The reality is that we’re all terminal; most of us terminate before we’re quite ready but it does happen. Acknowledging that fact can be ridiculously freeing.

The Boomers are reportedly worried not only about the finiteness of their lives, but also about their legacy. The Times article quoted a survey of 1,000 Americans age 44 to 79 conducted by AARP, which found that 55 percent believed they would leave the world worse off than they found it. That prospect can turn you gray in a hurry. But these near-retirees are not planning just to sit around getting gray.

Loss of their legends, according to Marc Freedman, author of “Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America, has created in this generation a sense of both the “expansion and compression of time,” and they are looking toward second careers doing good. “I think this is the first time so many have simultaneously had an awareness of death and the prospect of a whole new act,” Mr. Freedman says. Many of those new acts may turn the above expectation around, so the world might be left a little better off than they found it.

To which the post-Boomers say, Go Boomers.

2 responses

  1. I have found it interesting seeing how certain deaths have effected me and others not at all. Cronkite didn’t have much effect on despite having spent a great part of my youth with him on a daily basis. Mary Travers’ passing choked me up as did Johnny Carson’s death (though not of the recent crop).

    • That’s fascinating. I had almost the same response: I admired and respected Cronkite hugely but somehow felt simply okay with his passing from the scene. Johnny Carson, though, was too much a part of my history, rather in the same vein with Frank Sinatra, and I was emotional about his death for days. Mary Travers just evokes waves of nostalgia — plus she was YOUNGER than I am.

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