Blog by Professor Tony Walter, University of Bath
Dr Joe Wood observes in his 2021 blog on extinction and the end of the world that total pain at the end of life can include what gerontologist Malcolm Johnson (2013) calls biographical pain. In this semi-autobiographical blog about today’s ageing baby boomers, I locate a particular kind of biographical pain in the unique historical period that we have lived through and shaped.
This is the realisation that there are things I have done, or not done, earlier in life that now – because I am near my end and my energies are depleting – it is too late to remedy. It is a form of end-of-life suffering for which there is no palliation, no consolation – other perhaps than the acknowledgement that it is only human to err and, for the declining numbers of those who believe, the deity’s forgiveness. Victor Marshall’s (1991) research found that reviewing one’s life on entry into old age is generally a positive experience. However, Butler (1963) and Johnson point to many negative experiences. Johnson locates biographical pain among those nearing the end of their life in relation to their specific historic generational experience.
The baby boomers were born 1946 – 1964, so are now (2022) aged 58 – 76 and will be the beneficiaries of end-of-life care in coming decades. They have often been characterised as a lucky generation, benefitting from the expansion of secondary and free higher education, of universal health care, of women’s careers, full employment, the opportunity to buy a home at a decent price, cheap consumer goods (not least household appliances and home entertainment), cheap travel (first by car, then by plane), regular vacations abroad, and (especially for men) adequate pensions; in the UK, none experienced military conscription. Many became upwardly mobile into an expanding middle class. The boomers indeed have been, materially at least, an extraordinarily lucky generation.
But might the boomers’ material security now be accompanied by increasing biographical pain as they move toward life’s end? Their children and grandchildren struggle to pay for education, to find good jobs, to buy a home. More dramatic, the climate and ecological emergency questions whether they will have any future at all; worse, the planet’s condition is due in large part to the consumption the boomers so enjoyed. To this may be added the realisation that the collapse of communism has not meant the end of war, even of nuclear war. Black Lives Matter and the toppling of statues are reminders that slavery and empire are not long-gone historical periods but underlie continuing injustice around the world; along with black anger, white guilt is also on the increase. #MeToo reminds men that their relationships to women have often been exploitative. The world the boomers’ children and grandchildren are inheriting is not a comforting world, let alone a safe one. Some boomers who bought into the myth of everlasting progress (because they themselves experienced it) now wonder if it was all illusory. Rather than building a future for their descendants, they have simply feathered their own nest through naïve consumption based on historic and continuing exploitation of planet and people. Their descendants will pay a huge price for all this.
How many boomers are now re-interpreting their lived experience of affluence and safety as something of which they are now beginning to feel ashamed? Ageing boomers who look back on their lives with any honesty have searching questions to face as to whether it was all worth it. Born in 1948, the year the NHS was formed, I grew up in the 1950s when prime minister Harold Macmillan correctly announced ‘You’ve never had it so good’, and I will die in a year that Planet Earth is burning its inhabitants alive. Not a trajectory to be proud of. What will boomers do with once good memories of a life of affluence and security, memories now discredited by Greta Thunberg, Vladimir Putin, Black Lives Matter and (for some men) #MeToo? How are boomers to face death with equanimity?
This is by no means the first time that an entire generation arrives at old age to find its lifecourse invalidated. A psychotherapist working in the mid-1990s in the former East Germany told me of the biographical pain of some of her older clients. Members in the 1930s of the Hitler youth, they embraced Nazism; after 1945, they painfully realised this was a false hope, and became good communists; after 1989, having devoted much of their adult lives to being good communist citizens, they were told that this too was misguided. Unlike younger generations, they were too old to turn to the market for careers or to accumulate enough to become capitalist consumers. How then were they to enter old age with equanimity, fearing their lives had been wasted first on one ideology and then on another, and knowing that they were no longer respected by their grandchildren? What were they to do with once happy memories of Nazi or Communist life that were now discredited?
How the discrediting of the boomers’ consumer lifestyle may, or may not, impact on total pain at their end of life is uncertain. Their generational pain is not the searing biographical pain of a life blighted by PTSD, alcoholism or domestic abuse, or an old age tormented by regrets of an abortion, staying in an unfulfilling marriage or career, or other perceived wrong turnings in life. Rather, it is the existential pain of meaninglessness, a form of pain to which, not least through her reading of Viktor Frankl (1987), Cicely Saunders was most attentive.
At the same time, I do not yet see my middle-class boomer peers plagued by generational guilt and regret. With the end of lockdown, they have returned to jetting around the world or campervanning around Europe. I myself regret but am not tormented by my lifetime CO2 emissions whose seriousness I did not understand at the time, about which I can now do little, and some of which at the time I greatly enjoyed emitting. I amconcerned about how to reduce my current emissions, and I do regret how I have treated some individuals.
So, as boomers approach their end, it is an open question if or how many will experience biographical pain over their generation’s global legacy. The answer may well depend on a) the condition of humankind and Planet Earth over the next 20-30 years, b) whether some, acknowledging that the ecological end as well as their personal end is nigh, come to live more fully in the present (Bendell, 2019), and c) people’s enduring capacity to find meaning in family and friendship.
Bendell, J. (2019). Doom and bloom: adapting to collapse. In C. Farrell, A. Green, S. Knights, & W. Skeaping (Eds.), This is not a drill: an Extinction Rebellion handbook(pp. 73-80). London: Penguin.
Butler, R. N. (1963). The Life Review: an interpretation of reminiscence in the aged. Psychiatry, 26, 65-76.
Frankl, V. (1987).Man’s Search for Meaning. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Johnson, M. (2013). Biography and Generation: Spirituality and biograpical pain at the end of life in old age. In M. Silverstein & M. Giarrusso (Eds.), From Generation to Generation: Continuity and Discontinuity in Aging Families. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Marshall, V. (1991). Last Chapters: a sociology of ageing and dying. Monterey CA: Books/Cole.