On Theodore Roszak

Editor’s note: This is a very brief synthesis of some interesting research I have been conducting about our current aging state of affairs that harkens back to the work of Theodore Roszak, who argued that—as the New York Times noted in an article upon his death in 2011—“the idealistic values of the 1960s would inspire millions of baby boomers in their last years.”

I’ve been reading the works of Theodore Roszak—three of his books, in particular: “The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society & Its Youthful Opposition” published in 1970; “Longevity Revolution: As Boomers Become Elders,” published in 2001; and “The Making of an Elder Culture: Reflections on the Future of America’s Most Audacious Generation,” published in 2009.  I am about half way through Elder Culture and have only just started the other two.

I am struck by the quote at the outset of the first chapter of Elder Culture, from Maggie Kuhn, a social activist who happens to have been born in my home town, Buffalo, NY, in 1905:

“We are not ‘senior citizens’ or ‘golden-agers.’ We are the elders, the experienced ones; we are maturing, growing adults responsible for the survival of our society. We are not wrinkled babies, succumbing to trivial, purposeless waste of our years and our time. We are a new breed of old people.” — Maggie Kuhn, A Dialogue on Age

That immediately got my attention.

Roszak, it turns out, was a prolific writer with a creative flair. In The Making of a Counter Culture, he sets the stage with his theories and notions on the “technocracy,” writing that

In the technocracy everything aspires to become purely technical, the subject of professional attention. The technocracy is therefore the regime of experts—or of those who can employ the experts. Among its key institutions we find the “think-tank,” in which is housed a multi-billion-dollar brainstorming industry that seeks to anticipate and integrate into social planning quite simply everything on the scene. . . Within such a society, the citizen, confronted by bewildering bigness and complexity, finds it necessary to defer on all matters to those who know better.

He takes this theme over to his books published in the 21st century. In Elder Culture, for instance, Roszak points out that:

Conservatives, especially the neoconservatives who came to power during the Reagan presidency, see the cost on an aging society as the prime obstacle to their project of building a corporate-dominated, market-based, highly militarized global economy. They have accurately seen the entitlements and the life expectancy now available to the many as the antithesis of a Social-Darwinist ethic that serves the few.

In Longevity Revolution, he explains how our ability and propensity to be healthier and live much longer lives than our predecessors brings forth a dilemma that conservatives can’t seem to reason out in a logical fashion. In a chapter titled “The Attack on Entitlements,” he writes about so-called “generational accountants” who have made “the future appear especially catastrophic,” calling the aging boomer generation, for instance,

an unfunded pension liability. . . Just as their early industrial ancestors, the classical economists, could see nothing in the future but misery for the millions but misery for the millions, the generational accountants are telling the younger generation that it is destined for grinding poverty—unless it finds some way to turn life expectancy back to what it was during the Great Depression when few people were expected to live long enough to collect their Social Security.

The question in my mind becomes what is that we aging boomers can do about this kind of overly negative thinking? My simple answer goes back to Kuhn’s quote. We must not succumb to “trivial, purposeless waste of our years and our time.” We must continue to contribute, which means, in short, that full retirement is no longer a smart option.

4 comments

  1. I came across Roszak through The Archdruid Report and your original blog through a Google search for blogs writing about Roszak. My hope was to find other searchers like myself interested in revisiting some 1960s wisdom. Looks like I had a plan. 😉

    Kuhn’s protest against our being pigeon-holed in the condescending category of “senior citizen” fits well with Roszak’s disgust with our technocratic, capitalist society. If we survived by physical labor in our prime, our bodies are probably too broken down to be humping drywall in our 60s. If we earned our bread with our brains, they’re getting too creaky to learn yet another software language or too jaded to care about keeping up with the latest intellectual or aesthetic fads. We’ve reached an age where we’re not all that good at making capitalists more lucre to stuff in their already overflowing pockets. Unless we have some money saved up to spend in our dotage, this society has no use for us.

    Humans once needed to have Roszak’s “elders” around. Their experience, memories, knowledge of their tribe’s stories and rituals, all together called wisdom, were what held their groups together in the here-and-now and tied past to present to future. Those societies were not obsessed with profit but had other standards for what constituted the good life, and the secrets about how to live well usually resided in the hearts and minds of the elders.

    I must admit that I have absolutely no interest in “contributing” anything to this society if that means doing something that fits amiably into what I consider a sick and destructive culture. I am fully committed to being part of a rebirth of the sort of wisdom and love that burst out a half-century ago.

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  2. “I am fully committed to being part of a rebirth of the sort of wisdom and love that burst out a half-century ago.”

    Thanks Mr. Moon. I agree. I was a proud hippie back in the day and still am at heart. We got a bad rap from the conservative establishment who labeled us as being promiscuous drug addicts. The majority of us were not, of course. We only wanted world peace, and, for everyone, young and old alike, to get along. Plus our socially democratic leanings would have enabled us, who are now the elderly, to be productive citizens. Unfortunately, things did not turn out the way we envisioned, and now, it seems we are about to go down a dark path in our nation’s history and basically all we can do is hope it is a temporary bad blip.

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  3. I’m not completely pessimistic about our current situation. One of the things that seemed to frustrate Roszak so much was that the majority of his society was completely captured by that technocratic, capitalist society and its definitions of happiness, reality, consciousness and truth. That’s one reason that psychedelics were such a big part of the 60s because it took that kind of powerful consciousness disrupter to awaken people.

    But since then, our elites have failed so completely to fulfill their promises of a happy meritocracy that the majority has lost trust in their wisdom and is looking elsewhere. There are plenty of very dark and ugly places they could head, but there are also some beautiful destinations that might get a hearing in this disillusioned and lost environment.

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  4. I’m staying hopeful, Mr. Moon, but it seems to evolving into a very difficult pursuit, especially since last week and the latest news on the administration transition overall that will be inching up to a extremely sad Friday. It’s hard to be even a little optimistic right not, but I’m trying.

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