The Rise of the Alpha Geezer

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, September 9, 2007

When Larry Craig was accused of playing footsie in a men's room, the ensuing political foofaraw tended to overshadow the interesting fact that the senator is 62 years old. That's not ancient, to be sure. But I've always thought that cruising the stalls of an airport loo was appropriate behavior only for a much younger man.

Were I to interview Craig, I would ask: Whatever happened to slowing down, sagging into a favorite chair every night and reading Popular Mechanics? Or woodworking in the basement? Patrolling the lawn for crab grass? Daydreaming about cutting the kids out of the will? And the rest of the traditional, older-guy program generally known as "puttering around"?

All that is gone, apparently. There are no old people anymore. The word "senior" is in disfavor; the folks at AARP often use the term "grown-up" to refer to our most tenured citizens. (And it's not the American Association of Retired Persons anymore, either: The group decided that because most of its members weren't retired, it should be just AARP, standing for nothing at all.)

This sociological revolution has given rise to a new American icon: the frisky geezer. The frisky geezer is someone who never got the memo to stick to golf from here on out. Americans today live not only longer, but with more fire in the belly. Disability rates for people over 65 go down by more than 2 percent a year, according to a long-term national survey published in 2006. The culture of being older has fundamentally changed, says Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center-USA and a professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "The atmosphere has become more robust in favor of older people remaining part of the human race," says Butler, who is 80 and works 60 hours a week. "They're no longer expected to go to the rocking chair and give up."

I'd nominate Rupert Murdoch as this summer's frisky geezer extraordinaire. He's 76, his media empire bestrides multiple continents, he can phone in headlines to a New York tabloid or greenlight a movie deal at 20th Century Fox -- but it's not enough. No. He must own the Wall Street Journal. You get a sense that it's not just a business deal, it's self-actualization.

Even Murdoch is a pup compared with legendary FG Sumner Redstone, a media tycoon who, at 84, has a feisty feud going with his daughter over control of his companies ("I gave to my children their stock; and it is I, with little or no contribution on their part, who built these great media empires," he wrote to Forbes magazine in July).

The presidential race is a geezer-fest. John McCain, who recently turned 71, would be the oldest person to capture the Oval Office. Fred Thompson, never a man in a rush, has finally gotten around to running for president -- at age 65. And then there's peppy Chris Dodd, a mere lad of 63, who has not only found presidential ambition late in life but has also discovered, for the first time, the joys of being a parent (he has two young children and jokes that he's the first presidential candidate to get mail from AARP and a diaper service).

The proliferation of frisky geezers is a promising development for all of us who intend to become geezers and remain frisky, though the phenomenon is not without complications. Will geezers suck up all our nation's fiscal resources? Will they occupy all the best socioeconomic niches (having already nabbed the best tee times)?

Steve Slon, who is 55 and the editor of AARP: The Magazine, says that we are seeing the demise of the restrictive rules about "acting your age." "We continue to view ourselves as young," he says, speaking for the boomer generation.

More and more people over 50 are adopting kids, so put down "parenting" as a major grown-up-citizen activity.

"We get so many pitches about people over 60 riding their bikes across the country, or running in 100-mile marathons, we have to tell them, 'Great, but this is not really news anymore,' " says Margaret Guroff, health editor of the AARP magazine.

Much of the revolution takes place out of sight. Recently we all read the front-page story about older people having sex like bunnies. According to the University of Chicago study, 53 percent of Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 remain sexually active, along with 26 percent between the ages of 75 and 85, despite the fact that 100 percent of their kids and grandkids would rather not picture it. Now we understand that special twinkle in Grandpa's eye when he looks at Grandma and says, "I'll show you an Early Bird Special you'll never forget."

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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