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The Rise of the Alpha Geezer

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."

It's hard to know how those sex stats compare to an earlier era. Certainly this can't be an entirely new phenomenon; I'm reminded by Washington Post literary critic Michael Dirda that Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell and Pablo Picasso were all legendarily priapic far into their old age. The last time University of Chicago researchers studied Americans' sexual behavior, they didn't look at anyone older than 59. Until now we've had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding geezer sex.

The lives of older folks have been off the books in another way: Millions of them do volunteer work, but economists don't count that as part of the nation's gross domestic product.

The friskiness of the elderly has a trickle-down effect. Senior citizens are the only grown-ups left. Almost everyone between the ages of 40 and 55 is in a state of arrested adolescence (is there a CEO or presidential candidate in America who isn't in a garage band?). To judge from stories in major news magazines, all 25-year-olds today live with their parents.

Teenagers, meanwhile, generally have the street savvy of hamsters.

Boomers always get a lot of ink, as do teens and twixters and Gen-Xers and all the other cohorts that are viewed by advertisers as demographically desirable. We're youth-obsessed to the point where the elderly have nearly disappeared from popular culture. Go to the racks at the checkout stand: You see 40-year-old women buying magazines whose editors want to reach 30-year-old women by running photos of women who appear to be about 22 but are actually 17.

But the old lions are still prowling. Who is still the best investor in the nation? Warren Buffett. Just turned lucky 77.

Who's the biggest stud in Hollywood? It ain't Tom Cruise: I'm guessing it's Clint Eastwood, born a few months before Buffett.

Who still has more clout than any other TV interviewer? Probably Barbara Walters, who is believed to be turning 78 in a few weeks , but Larry King, 73, might argue otherwise.

Who has the biggest audience (22 million listeners) of any radio personality? Broadcasts three times a day? Yes, that would be Paul Harvey, now in his 90th year on the planet.

Best American novelist still regularly pounding out great fiction? Might be Philip Roth, who is 74 and still winning the biggest prizes. Or is it Cormac McCarthy at 74? No: It has to be the unstoppable Joyce Carol Oates, who published her one-millionth novel, "The Gravedigger's Daughter," at age 69.

On the stage? Maybe Sir Ian McKellen, playing King Lear and looking buff at 68. ("Mr. McKellen makes for a vigorous Lear," says a recent review in the New York Times. "He stands tall and slim, has strong legs, visible when he drops his pants in Act IV.")

Shouldn't we mention 80-year-old Joe Paterno? Still coaching football at Penn State, where he started in the Truman administration.

Let's not forget Hugh Hefner. He has made the long journey from thinking-man's swinger and magazine editor to vapid, jammies-wearing self-parody. But three girlfriends! That's seriously frisky. If not, perhaps, entirely grown-up.

My off-the-cuff list skews male. That might be a generational thing, an echo of the days of rigid patriarchies and the feminine mystique. Perhaps women, after a certain age, are less inclined to make spectacles of themselves. But it's all fluid. The next president could be a woman, inciting an outbreak of frisky geezerettes.

I asked Butler, the longevity expert, what it's like to be 80.

"The most striking difference is the tendency to be aware of the past, whereas if you're 40, you're more likely to be thinking about what you're going to do next," he said. "But I still do. I think a lot about what I'm going to do next."

Which is?

"I have a book coming out -- a big book -- 'The Longevity Revolution,' in January," he reports. And after that? Another book, he hopes. Why not? His blood pressure is perfect. Cholesterol, 130.

"So far, so good," he says.

achenbachj@washpost.com

Joel Achenbach is a Washington Post staff writer and blogs at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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