December 29, 2010
On Becoming the New Old Fogey
As we get ready to ring in the new year, I’m reminded that I’m not getting any younger. And, I’m quite comfortable with that. Late night New Year’s Eve parties have given way to quiet evenings at home with my family and friends. A little Thai, and while the kids play in their bedrooms with friends, we’re nicely ensconced in front of our fireplace, a good old vine Zin in hand. Times Square isn’t even on our radar.
But being comfortable isn’t my only goal come January. Oh, sometimes I aspire to be a Father Knows Best sort of dad, but, if you must know, I’m really more of a Modern Family sort of one. I may be getting older but I’m working on a strategy for not getting old.
Betty White mixing it up with a friend on Saturday Night Live.
The successful campaign to get White a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live by Gen Xers and Millennials is a surprising turn on how we look at age. To what does Betty (may I call you Betty, Ms. White?) owe this adoration amongst young people? She’s 88! But she doesn’t act like anyone’s grandmother. So, what makes a person get old? And why is Betty so young?
As I get closer to geezerhood, I’ve been taking a good hard look at myself. I can’t stop my birthdays (as my father used to say, “Consider the alternative!”). But I can fine tune how I look at the world, and my outlook has little to do with my real age. My neighbor, in his early 50s, is afraid of the future and has said he’d like to go back to the 1960s (as if any point in that decade was a banner year for safety).
My father, an engineer for Lockheed in the early 1960s, traveled the world teaching other engineers how to move from their slide rules to computers. Despite his ability to embrace and evangelize the new, as he got older he lost that edge. Somewhere over the decades he seemed to lose his interest in fresh ideas. His younger self morphed into his older self, afraid of what was coming next. And, like my neighbor, it scared him.
The Bettys of the world don’t seem to work that way. Oh, as White said in her SNL opening monologue, when she first heard about the Facebook campaign to get her to host the show, she had no idea what Facebook was and, in fact, now that she knew, she thought it was a big waste of time. The audience laughed and understood it’s not whether they are technology savvy that makes people like Betty so attractive.
So what makes some stay young while others slowly grow old? Aside from staying buff (okay, it’s an uphill battle), here are a few things I’m doing to stave off old fogeyhood:
Be alert and stay connected. I am constantly observing people and how they work. Last week it suddenly occurred to me that every time I walk out of my office building I come in contact with people I’ve never seen before. So there’s a constant influx of new material and interactions happening right in front of me. Simply by doing things like commuting or walking down the street I’m injecting myself in that daily mix. This allows me to stay connected. Sometimes I merely observe but at other times I interact—sometimes with total strangers.
I’m what Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, calls an infovore (PDF). “The more information the infovore consumes, the more order he brings to his world.” What a perfect word. (Too bad he’s too young to be an old fogey.) Order in my world includes and embraces the often-chaotic nature of daily life. But if an abundance of information gives you headache and sweaty palms, you’re probably not an infovore. Still, the advantage the New Old Fogeys have is we can take decades of our past experiences and fold them into this novel mix.
Using Facebook and Twitter, all of technology for that matter, isn’t the goal. They’re just tools which allow me to…
Explore new ideas. But that doesn’t mean I embrace every new idea I come in contact with. The more I explore, the more discerning I become (and the more I discover about myself). But I’m looking for people who share this inquisitiveness.
Three years ago my oldest daughter, then 10, gave me an impromptu report card on my aging. One day while in the car, I suddenly heard from the backseat: “Dad, you’re really cool. You like cool clothes, you like cool music, and you like technology.” What a gift! I took it to heart and was encouraged to keep up the good work. Two years later I thought I’d better check in with her to see how I was doing. “Well,” she hesitated, “you’re not so good in the music department any more.” (She had just finished a class in the history of rock and roll and thought she knew it all.) I immediately countered: “Do you know who Adele is?” She didn’t. “I predict she will win the Grammy for the best new artist this year!” On the night of the awards, my daughter and I sat together as Adele was named the winner. My reputation was salvaged for at least the next six months—okay, maybe two weeks.
My ideas are constantly changing and being challenged. And I’ll accept that challenge from anywhere and anyone. This exploration and mixing of ideas allows me to…
Play. The New Old Fogey isn’t just a consumer of new ideas, we seem to inhale, mix them up, and play around with them. The result: newer, perhaps quite idiosyncratic thoughts. Unlike my father and neighbor, we’re willing to take risks. The most engaged senior citizens aren’t just guarding what we’ve acquired over the years; we’re growing and giving it back by interacting with the people around us. Betty White’s willingness to immerse herself in other people’s ideas and inject her own take on them keeps her mind active and engaged. And it’s clear she’s really enjoying what she’s doing. That’s play.
At age 61 I’ve decided to look for a mentor. I don’t care how old he or she is. But as I begin to think about the next phase of my life, I’m looking for guidance and people who are as interested in these things as I am. My father used to say: “Youth is wasted on the young.” He believed that by the time you got old and hopefully wiser, you no longer had any energy or desire to explore. I don’t believe that for one minute. And neither does Betty.
What’s your strategy for becoming a new old fogey?