Why Americans Are Uniquely Afraid to Grow Old

7 minute read

Life is arithmetic. There are only three certainties all of us face: you’re born, you live, and you die. How many years you get in that interval is something of a mortal crapshoot, but most people would agree on one thing: they’d like as many as possible.

That fact is becoming more relevant than ever in the U.S., where aging Baby Boomers have now pushed the 65-and-over cohort to 56 million people, or 16.9% of the national population. By 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20% of the population will be of retirement age. By 2034, seniors will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. That’s an awful lot of old people confronting the physical, cognitive, and emotional frailties that come with age, not to mention the cold reality that the older you get the closer you come to, well, the end of the line.

There is an entire branch of psychology built around the geriatric mind, dealing not just with such clinical conditions as dementia, but also the simple business of fear of—and resistance to—aging. That resistance often takes its form in all manner of youth-preserving strategies such as cosmetic surgery (with 15.5 million procedures performed in the U.S. in 2020 according to industry reports); extreme sports like septuagenarian marathons; and magical thinking (Sixty is the new fifty!). But apart from fear of death—which, admittedly, is hard to get around—why exactly do Americans resist aging so much? It’s a privilege that is denied to too many, after all. And it comes with a raft of advantages like wisdom, respect, and for many, a comfortable retirement. So what is it exactly that makes us all so age-averse?

For one thing, argues Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College, and, at 69, a Baby Boomer himself, America’s senior cohort comes from a uniquely privileged background, one that has left them with the feeling that the frailties that come with aging—and even death itself—are not inevitable rites of human passage, but somehow negotiable.

“We are perhaps the most death-denying generation in human history, having grown up in surreal conditions of modernity,” he says. “Our parents knew wars and depression. We—at least most white people—saw the golden age of the American dream, the last generation of Americans certain to do better than our parents in a world that seemed to be on an inexorable road to progress. We hit golf balls on the moon and have DoorDash and so obviously the next step is eternal life.”

That dream may be especially pronounced in one slice of the American demographic, but in fairness, aversion to death—and the dream of eternal life—is something writ deeply in the human psyche. Centuries of fables speak of immortality charms; Ponce de Leon, perhaps apocryphally, searched for the fountain of youth; religions promise eternal paradise after the brief passage of earthly life is done.

In the 1980s, Thomas Pyszczynski, 68, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, was part of a group of researchers who developed the terror management theory of facing death which, as its name implies, addresses the way we somehow get through our days knowing that somewhere at the end of the existential line lies the utter annihilation of the self. That’s a knowledge that other animals are spared, but it’s one that both haunts and animates our thinking.

“We have this evolved imperative to stay alive,” says Pyszczynski. “So the awareness of death creates this potential for terror. As a result, we use the same intellectual abilities that make us aware of death to manage our fear of it.”

Humans do that in one of two ways. The first is to cultivate a belief in literal immortality. “We detoxify death with the hope of living in an afterlife—like reincarnation,” Pyszczynski says. “Every culture has its own version of afterlife beliefs.” The other, less direct means is symbolic immortality. “That’s what people get by being part of something greater than themselves—something that will last forever, like having children or creating works of art, or building buildings. We leave a mark that ensures the world—or at least our families—will remember us.”

Americans are no different from others in leaning both on faith in an afterlife and producing good works in this one as a palliative for our fear of our own mortality. But as Solomon says, our culture—and particularly the Boomer segment—is pushing back against those old ways too.

“I think we just never got out of the Disneyland idea that life was always going to get better,” he says. “It just was inconceivable that we would die so we’re trying to buy our way out of it—you know, have your head frozen; get out of my body and onto Google Cloud; just really hope that we get the pill that’s going to keep us around another couple of centuries.” For example, only 58% of Boomers aged 53 to 71 have written wills or other estate planning documents, according to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). What’s more, of the top 38 anti-aging start-up labs worldwide, 28 are in the U.S., reports the website MedicalStartups.

Pyszczynski agrees that there is a particular anti-aging imperative in America. Traditional Asian cultures, for example, are inclined to venerate the elderly for their decades of acquired insight and wisdom. The U.S., a younger country with an equally young ethos, does not show the same respect. That’s especially true in politics, for example: witness the alternating hand-wringing and bomb throwing about whether President Joe Biden, at 80, is too old to serve now, much less seek another term. By contrast, the Dalai Lama, at 87, remains a revered figure in the Eastern world, with his advanced years seen as one of his great, transcendent strengths.

“Our culture has always relied on the new,” Pyszczynski says, “on new discoveries and new ideas, whereas other cultures look back more at the elders and the ancients and see the world as fine the way it was many years ago.”

Boomers have been a force multiplier in that rejection of the old and celebration of the new—and in some ways that comes from a disarmingly idealistic place. “There was the rebellion of the 60s,” says Pyszczynski. “There was the opposition to the Vietnam war, the push for desegregation, the sense that young people were going to make things better. The Who sang ‘Hope I die before I get old.’ I don’t think they would agree with that anymore.” Maybe not, but the exaltation of youth has stayed with the Boomer demo. “The values of being young that were so prominent when we were growing up makes it a little harder for us to age gracefully.” For example, 71% of Baby Boomers have failed to save adequately for retirement, according to MarketWatch—a stage in life that many Boomers may have felt they could put off indefinitely.

Gracefully or not, of course, aging is happening—incrementally maybe, but inevitably. Death awaits inexorably at the end of the great arc of life. We can embrace that truth or flail against it. Too many Americans—especially those in the current senior cohort—are choosing the flail. Those who don’t, those who accept that dying will always be the table stakes of getting to live in the first place, will meet their end with a greater equanimity—and a greater sense of peace.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com