Let's face the music and rot: Baby-boomers are ageing disgracefully. They should try looking on the bright side of decline

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ALLIED DUNBAR, the financial services group, is attempting to seduce us into facing the unfaceable with two brilliant television advertisements. One shows a man - maybe in his forties - on the operating table. The surgeons discover something more serious than they were expecting and the man, hearing the news through his anaesthesia, wakes up, takes off his mask and sings 'Let's face the music and dance'.

In the other, an older man hears of his own enforced retirement while in the cubicle of his company's washroom. He bursts out singing the same song: 'There may be trouble ahead . . .' The brilliance of these advertisements lies in an exquisite combination of realism and romanticism. The realism, embodied in the situation, says bad things do happen, and will soon happen to you. The romanticism, embodied in the song, says that precisely because of the inevitability of disaster, we should defy our forebodings and dance.

The target audience is an age group ranging, perhaps, from 40 to 55 - a generation usually known, not entirely accurately, as baby- boomers. These are people who grew up in an era that celebrated youth as never before. They found themselves spectacularly richer and more privileged than any generation before, and knew their lives were destined to be totally different to those of their parents.

Above all, they always thought there was a radical solution, a technique, a way of doing things that would erase every problem, right up to the last. The more successful they were, the more convinced by the Zeitgeist, the more completely they embraced the myth of their omni-competence. But the two things they failed or maybe forgot to fix were old age and dying.

Patrick Rabbitt is professor of cognitive gerontology (the study of ageing) at Manchester University. He is known for his sepulchral charm: 'Yes,' he says, 'they are growing old disgracefully; they hate it. They were brought up with the idea that they can cure anything with jogging and other violent and harmful pursuits.'

Professor Rabbitt studies a sample of 6,000 people. This inspires in him a gloomy realism about the ageing process. 'The brain,' he once told me with soothing clinical detachment, 'rots.' He also said any skills acquired earlier in life may persist into old age, but added suavely that they become 'islands of competence in an ebbing sea of mediocrity'. Talking to Professor Rabbitt is like reading Samuel Beckett: hopeless but bracing, unacceptably funny but true.

This whole genre of graveyard wit implies an attitude, maybe even a philosophy. It suggests that grown-ups should face the impending disintegration with wry humour that does not console - 'Bugger that]' as Dennis Potter said bracingly of consolation in his last interview - but rather makes light of the dual outrages of decline and death. You should not, with Dylan Thomas, rage against the dying of the light, or, with WB Yeats, bitterly portray yourself as 'sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal', or even shriek 'I don't believe it]' with Victor Meldrew. Rather you should quietly face the facts and allow yourself, at most, a wry smile as the synapses snap and fuse.

It is a classical posture that is fundamentally alien to the baby- boomers. Their belief in their difference and their flair for radical solutions closed their minds to such fatalism.

'We thought,' says the American feminist Erica Jong, 'we could do anything.' I was talking to her on Monday while standing at a publishing party surrounded by an offensively large number of mini- skirted teenagers and the usual crowd of variously ravaged middle-aged media hoodlums. The point could scarcely have been better made - the younger you are, the happier and better-looking you are, the more you are in possession of the baby-boomer's good life.

'You thought death was optional?'

'Perfect,' she replies. 'Exactly. Death was optional.'

Ms Jong is in London promoting her book Fear of Fifty, an autobiography driven by the horror the baby-boomer heirs of the cult of youth feel at the prospect of growing old and dying.

'We are terrified at fifty,' she writes, 'because we do not know what on earth we can become when we are no longer young and cute.'

Ms Jong's crisis, honourably defined but insufficiently analysed in the book, is that of a generation too pleased with itself for too long to adopt the correctly tragic posture when it came to The Last Things. To them, being young and cute was not a phase, it was a moral imperative. But now, faced in the frighteningly near future with Professor Rabbitt's brain rot, they are subject to violent mood swings or jogging or similar projects.

Sure enough, three days before her 50th birthday Ms Jong went to a spa and 'worked out all day . . . learnt trendy low-fat vegetarian recipes, had my blackheads expunged, my flab massaged, my muscles stretched and thought about the second half of my life'. Even that word 'half' seems to betray the strange can-do optimism of the generation.

This all seems to suggest that the particular anxiety of this particular generation is a new phenomenon. Ms Jong certainly thinks so. Never before was youth so glorified and never before did technology and the myriad delusions of hard-line individualism offer so many palliatives. As a result, when the time came, never before were ageing and death so feared and discussed as if they had never happened to anybody else.

But is this simply fear of death? Professor Rabbitt's study group shows that the primary anxieties between the ages of 60 and 80 are money and loneliness. Loneliness drops away as a worry after 80 and money and health take over. But before that, in the age range in which the baby-boomers now find themselves, I would guess that sex would also be high on the list.

Ms Jong is explicit about this. She has clearly been - is still? - a devotee of the cult of self-discovery through sex that was an essential element of the baby-boomers' liberation package. But nothing is more threatened by age than sex, a fact that drove the elderly Yeats crazy. 'Why,' he asked, 'should not old men be mad?' By mad he meant deranged by lust. The nasty, brutish and short answer is that old men should not be mad because they are not sexually desirable and because younger people do not like to think of older people having sex.

And, as if the mere spectacle of watching your sexuality recede is not bad enough, salt is ground into the wound by the high-profile ubiquity of the cult of youth and sex. Certainly the population is ageing - about 17 per cent of the population is over 60, and by 2000 it will be more than 20 per cent - but you would scarcely know it from the interior decor of the culture. More than ever before, the images, invocations and demands that surround us are those of the young and sexy. Everybody appears to be at it. The irony for the death-fearing baby-boomers is that they started this free sex stuff and now they find themselves drowning in it, just as the end of their own (sex) lives looms.

Uncharacteristically, Professor Rabbitt derives some optimism from this. He thinks that as the balance of economic power tips towards the elderly, the whole advertising and media emphasis will switch from youth towards age. There will be a new sobriety and elderly practicality about the images that are intended to grab us, although anyone who has spent time watching television advertisements in the enema-obsessed retirement land of Florida will not be inclined to share his belief that this is some kind of improvement.

The trick so finely executed by Allied Dunbar is to offer the anxious baby-boomers the only solution they might find palatable: a blithe insouciance, groundless optimism with defiant existential overtones. Be prepared, say the ads, when the times comes, to go happily with the flow. This makes perfect sense for a secular generation for whom 'the flow' has replaced God as the ground of being.

Not, of course, that a television advertisement is anything like enough to soothe the furrowed brows of the spoilt cohorts now ageing so disgracefully. Ms Jong is right to say that this experience is unique: the baby-boomers were probably the first people to think they could fix life completely. And, disgraceful as they are, you can hardly blame them for forgetting to fix death as well.

'Fear of Fifty', by Erica Jong, is published by Chatto & Windus at pounds 16.

(Photographs omitted)