Terence Blacker: A generation still trying to grow up

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The Independent Online

This week the television presenter Anne Diamond will admit on Celebrity Fit Club that she has reduced her weight with the help of a surgical procedure, technically known as a "sparetyrectomy". Last week Ann Widdecombe was protesting about an NHS sexual health information service, saying that "it's just sex, sex, sex". Before that, there was the naughty-pussy scene in which George Galloway MP appeared on national television lapping from Rula Lenska's hand.

What next from the generation that is misbehaving as fast as it is ageing? A televised bottom lift for Peter Stringfellow? A CD of Sixties hits sung by Sir Trevor MacDonald? Now that exhibitionism is in and maturity is old hat, nothing seems impossible.

Middle age is inherently ludicrous. The sagging muscle-tone, the swelling girth, the thinning hair are funny enough, at least to the young, but the real hilarity lies in the light of hope that continues to flicker feebly within those wrinkling features. We are past it, but we think we can still do it. We really believe that we are players in life, clicking our fingers, swaying to the beat. We prefer to ignore the fact that the rules of engagement have changed, that others are no longer laughing along with us, that we have become the joke.

If a dreary young pop singer had pretended to be a cat on a reality show, it would have been rather sweet and amusing. Used by a woman in her twenties, the surgical weight-loss system would have been zany and original. It is cruel and unfair, but the fact is that, after a certain age, these things are merely sad.

So here is a rather important question. Given that at no time in history have the middle-aged been quite so unwilling to face up to the passing of time as today's baby-boomers, is this behaviour yet another scandal of early 21st-century life, or could it be something rather more commendable? Is it not possible that the flipside of all this idiocy and lack of dignity among the ageing is a sense of zestful defiance and energy?

Not according to the increasing number of people who are unamused by the misbehaviour of oldsters. "No one wants to hear it, but we are having a problem with the middle-aged," is the stern conclusion of an American sociologist called Mike Males, whose finding, while researching for a book called Boomergeddon, have already been reported in Time magazine and in The Sunday Times. According to Males, those who regularly bemoan the behaviour of adolescents and young adults have got it all wrong. It is those in their forties and fifties who pose the greatest threat to social balance and progress.

The middle-aged have the worst rate of violent death, he says. They rank high in the drug addiction figures, with fatal overdoses between the ages of 40 and 60 having increased 200 per cent over the past 35 years. They are fat, and more and more of them have Aids. It may be harsh but a brief, informal survey of my peers and contemporaries - call it the General Falling Apart Index - suggests that these findings are along the right lines.

Males points out that for all our post-hippy talk of sharing and communication, the middle-aged are selective when it comes to self-analysis. Those in positions of influence within politics and the media prefer to identify problems with the young, ignoring research which shows that those in their teens and twenties are generally behaving rather better than their antecedents did at their age.

But if it is true that young people are on the whole more mature, sensible and generally evolved than they used to be, it is surely only fair to give baby-boomer parents and teachers their share of the credit. After all, when it comes to offences against the Government's respect agenda, it is invariably the Sixties that are blamed by the usual knee-jerk moralists, quacking with generalised disapproval.

In fact, it was rather a heroic age. It was at that moment when the idea that you had to be a certain age to make any useful contribution was finally knocked on the head. For the first time, questioning the way things had always been done in the past was seen not to be such a terrible thing. An equality between generations emerged, a sense that we are all in this thing together and that one's age or position in some grim family hierarchy mattered less than a shared humanity.

Such things involve risk, leading at one level to a knack for behaving in an embarrassing or immature way, and more seriously, for making personal choices which hurt or harm, but it is surely time to recognise that the good has outweighed the bad.

When, during the Summer of Love in 1967, Jerry Garcia of the group the Grateful Dead was asked what the hippies wanted, he answered, "We would all like to be able to live an uncluttered life. A simple life. A good life and like, think about moving the whole human race ahead, a step or a few steps. We know what we're trying to do. We're trying to grow up."

Almost 40 years on, the uncluttered life and the growing up have often proved to be tricky - Garcia died in a drugs rehabilitation unit. But for all the grim mutterings about Boomergeddon, a step or a few steps forward have indeed been taken.