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The Editor’s Corner: Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll?
Don’t panic too much about America’s aging population; thanks to advances in healthcare and other technologies, older people can still bring a lot to the table
The other day, I came across a magazine cover that stopped me cold. There stood Mick Jagger facing the camera with his arms crossed and that famous outsized mouth of his open wide in a cross between a challenging snarl and a raucous laugh. As I kept staring, the fact that Jagger had just turned 80 barely registered. With the exception of the deep craggy lines that frame his mouth, he looked roughly like the same bantam rooster bad boy who’s been taking on the world since he first appeared on the music scene some 60 years ago.
Just in case you think it’s all a pose, the article inside the magazine makes clear that Jagger is still rocking pretty hard. He has a new album out with Rolling Stones bandmates Keith Richards (79) and Ron Wood (76) and special guest Paul McCartney (81). A major Stones tour will almost certainly be coming next year. Meanwhile, he’s busy raising his 6-year-old son with his 36-year-old girlfriend.
Amid all the recent talk of decrepitude in American politics, it’s important to note that Jagger is the same age as Joe Biden and only a year younger than Mitch McConnell. Not everyone makes it to 80, and many who do aren’t contemplating their “next chapter,” to quote the magazine headline about the Rolling Stones singer. But growing numbers of older people of all stripes are already living more productive and creative lives than their parents or grandparents did.
Indeed, this phenomenon is not limited to rock stars. Henry Kissinger, who just turned 100 in May, has published seven books since he was Mick Jagger’s age, including one last year. A slightly younger Thomas Sowell (93) has just published a new book.
This all comes at a time when, as Martin Gurri points out in a Discourse piece from last week, the fertility rate in the U.S., as well as much of the rest of the world, has plummeted. As Martin argues, quite correctly in my view, a world with fewer children will be a lonelier, less joyous place. “Absent the binding power of children, the extended family will disappear, and the nuclear family will disintegrate,” he writes. “If family is the audience to the drama of life, each individual will perform in the chill of an empty theater.”
Meanwhile, thanks to this birth dearth, the U.S. and many other countries (rich and poor) are rapidly becoming older. The average age of Americans, for instance, has risen from 30 in 1980 to 39 today. This aging trend is a concern for a host of practical, measurable reasons, starting with the obvious problem that a society with a smaller share of working-age people and a larger share of retirees will have a hard time affording the pension, healthcare and other costs needed to take care of the latter.
But in his essay, Martin also argues that other broad-based societal problems will arise as we collectively grow older. “Economically, a world dominated by the old will be less innovative, less dynamic, and more risk averse.” Undoubtedly, there is much truth to this, but things may not be quite as dire as he claims.
For one thing, the percentage of Americans age 65 and older who are still working is increasing and is projected to continue to grow in the years to come. (We’ll be exploring this phenomenon in a series of articles in Discourse in the coming months.) Perhaps more importantly, gains in lifespan over the past century and a half are now increasingly being matched by gains in what doctors and others call healthspan. In other words, in the past few decades, more and more people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s have been living much healthier lives.
“The suggestion that everyone who is old is feeble, experiencing loss, decline and decay—this completely ignores the radical transformation in the last 20-30 years of the population that’s survived to older ages,” University of Illinois biostatistician Jay Olshansky recently told The Wall Street Journal.
Of course, it’s still true that “growing old is not for sissies,” as singer Jimmy Buffett said a few months before his passing last month. But in spite of the continued challenges faced by many Americans in their 60s and beyond, it’s also true—to Olshansky’s point—that recent advances in medical and other technologies have made many conditions that would have been crippling, debilitating or fatal just a few decades ago much, much more manageable today. In areas ranging from prosthetic bone and joint replacements to cancer treatment, the pace of medical breakthroughs in the past quarter-century has been nothing less than remarkable.
What’s more, I see a hunger among some older people I know to still be productive and relevant, not just in their personal lives but in the wider world. For some, that means continuing their careers at full bore without any intention of stopping.
People in what the federal government calls their prime working years—age 25 to 54—retain many advantages over their older peers, including of course having more energy. And in some areas, younger people are likely to be much more dynamic and creative—which is one reason why the technology and other knowledge industries tend to seek out younger workers. Indeed, from theoretical mathematics and physics to rock music, there are plenty of endeavors where many if not most of the top people—from Albert Einstein to Mick Jagger—tend to do their most important work before their 35th birthdays.
But older people bring other advantages to the table, starting with decades more life experience and the hard-won knowledge and wisdom that come with it. They have had more time to learn, to read and to think and more time in general just to figure things out. Which is why, for every young genius who blazed across the sky like a comet, there were people who did great or even their greatest work near the end of a long life. Sophocles, for instance, wrote “Oedipus at Colonus” a year or two before his death in 406 B.C. at age 90.
Up to this point, older individuals’ great wealth of knowledge and experience has often been wasted, either subsumed by infirmity or repressed by social expectations (particularly in the 20th century) that older people should retire and get out of the way. That’s now changing… and for the better.
Some things, of course, won’t change. The worship of youth is as at least as old as civilization itself, so don’t expect that to disappear anytime soon. Meanwhile, for many, old age will still be a tough, lonely affair.
But for a growing number of people approaching 65, and for many already there, second acts and even third acts will become the norm, even de rigueur. This development is unlikely to entirely make up for the social dynamism and energy lost as the number of young people in society shrinks. But today’s older Americans and the generations coming up behind them will use their longer healthspans to produce, create and contribute, on average, much more than their parents or grandparents did, putting their own different and positive stamp on the present and the future.
What I’m Listening To: The worlds of classical music and film music have often overlapped. Some composers, such as Dmitri Shostakovich, wrote occasionally for the screen but primarily focused on composing for the concert hall. Others, such as Nino Rota (who wrote the scores for the first two “Godfather” films as well as many of Fellini’s movies), were primarily film composers who occasionally wrote “serious” music. But some 20th-century composers fully straddled both worlds. Of these, my favorite by far is Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Korngold was born to an Austrian Jewish family in the waning years of the 19th century. He was a child prodigy (very much like his namesake, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) who started life as a concert hall composer but was lured to Hollywood in the 1930s. There he composed scores for many Warner Brothers classics, particularly Errol Flynn swashbucklers such as “Robin Hood” and “Captain Blood,” as well as other historical dramas such as “The Sea Wolf” and “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” If you listen to a suite of themes from one of these films—in this case, “The Sea Hawk”—you’ll hear an operatic sweep of fanfares and gorgeous melodies hearkening back to the German romanticism of the composer’s youth, but with some lovely Hollywood touches added as well.
While I love Korngold’s film music, lately I’ve been listening more to his concert hall output, specifically his violin concerto. During World War II, a despairing Korngold stopped composing classical music and only wrote film scores to support himself. Right after the Allied victory in 1945, however, he turned his attention back to the concert hall, and this concerto was the first thing he finished. It was premiered in 1947 by the great violinist Jascha Heifetz and has been a staple of the violin repertoire ever since.
Like his film scores, Korngold’s concerto contains heartachingly beautiful melodies. In fact, the composer populates the piece with a number of themes from his earlier movie scores. But unlike his work for the cinema, he injects some dissonance here and there amid the joints of the work’s melodic structure. This creates a marvelous tension and gives the piece a gravitas that the film music, as much as I love it, lacks. It’s a wonderful masterpiece by a composer at the top of his game, and I hope you’ll give it a listen.
And While I’m At It: In 1946, Korngold scored a movie that is set in the world of classical music. Starring Bette Davis, Paul Henreid and the wonderful Claude Rains, “Deception” is a film noir romance centering around a love triangle. But the movie also contains scenes that show characters composing and playing classical music, including a new cello concerto that Rains has written for Henreid. Korngold composed part of the concerto for the film and then fleshed it out a bit more into a full performance version. Given Korngold’s career in both Hollywood and the concert hall, his work for the film is a wonderful example of art imitating life.
A Final Note
Like everyone else (well, almost everyone else), the senseless and horrific attacks that occurred in Israel on Oct. 7 left me groping for words and searching for some kind of understanding. Whenever something like this happens, many of us eventually go back to the same well-worn questions regarding the depths of man’s inhumanity to man. Of course, there are no easy answers, and sometimes, as Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili wrote in Discourse three years ago in the wake of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, you can’t even bring yourself to care about finding them. “I do not want to think about why it all happened. I just feel an incredible sense of sadness for the people we lost.”
But while it’s hard to understand what can drive someone to kill innocent people in the most brutal ways imaginable, one thing I do feel certain about is that regardless of the game of geo-strategic three-dimensional chess the leaders of Hamas and its mentors in Tehran think they were playing when they green lit this attack, violence was always its endgame. As Rob Tracinski wrote last week in an excellent piece on the tragedy in Discourse, the slaughter in southern Israel “was not a means to a goal. It was the goal.”
In the weeks and months to come, we will be publishing more on this tragedy and its consequences, starting with an essay next week by regular Discourse contributors Michael Ard and Michael Puttre on how the situation in Israel may impact American foreign policy. Also next week, our talented senior editor, Jennifer Tiedemann, will give me a breather and write The Editor’s Corner.
Take care and see you in two weeks.
New This Week
Robert Tracinski, "The Attack on Israel Gives Us a Glimpse of the Inferno"
Martin Gurri, "On Having Children"
David Masci, "The Editor's Corner: A Matter of Trust"
Addison Del Mastro, "'Starter Cars' Go the Way of Starter Homes"
Daniel Kochis, "Don't Count Out Emmanuel Macron"
Natasha Mott, "The Value of Ignorance"
David Masci and Christine McDaniel, "Does America Need an Industrial Policy for Semiconductors?"
From the Archives
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, "Community Before Politics"
Charles Lipson, “Conspiracy Theories and Anti-Semitism”
Michael Puttré, "Great Power War Is Here To Stay"