making-of-an-elder-cultureOne of the great thrills of existence  is that there is an endless amount to learn. I recently wrote a blog post predicting that as baby boomers entered the last third of their life there would be a resurgence of the 60’s values that many held in their youth. I was excited to discover that I was not alone in this hope. Dr. Theodore Roszak, famous for his culture-defining 1968 work, The Making of a Counterculture, and as a leading proponent of ecopsychology, has written a book on this very topic called The Making of an Elder Culture , published by New Society Publishers.

It has been a joy to read this book and become familiar with the work of Dr. Rosjak (who I am embarrassed to admit I was not familiar with — there’s that joy of new discovery!). This 76-year-old maintains and embodies the spirit that he writes about. He writes with a vigor and an idealism of a person one-third his age. In his latest book Rosjak makes a compelling case that as the baby boomers live for decades past 65, they will reengage with their original, countercultural values and take a leadership role in making the world a better, fairer place.

Roszak sees the baby boom generation as the leading edge of a profound change in demographics that will dominate world culture for the foreseeable future. The combination of lowering birth rates and longevity will make the world an older, and hopefully, wiser place. The 60’s were a time when we believed that if we raised individual consciousness we could change the world. Dr. Roszak agress with the Confucian concept that we cannot “pull the shoots.” That is, we must respect nature’s rate of growth and change. There is nothing, he asserts, that has the potential to raise consciousness like aging.  When vast numbers of people live into their 90’s and beyond, their values will shape our world. We will become a world that prioritizes wellness, sustainable living, and learning. The values of consumption and growth for growth’s sake will give way to a world where mutual care will be of utmost concern. He lays down a challenge for this aging generation. He says that, “Theirs must be a noble, far-sighted cause. They must be the spearhead of a compassionate economy that spreads its benefits to everyone.” He has the audacity to propose an optimistic world vision that results in a healthy relationship with the places we live and our broader environment, and leads to a spiritual realization.

Discovering the works of Roszak has particular meaning for me because I am a proud member of the Radical Passe. The values of the counterculture have stuck with me through the decades of narcissism, greed and fear. It isn’t just the ’60’s that have had a sustained appeal for me. I’m a fan of a whole world of thought that flowered with romanticism in 19th century Europe and passed on into a coma in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. This was a tradition of humanism. It included the belief that the unexamined life was not worth living. It questioned the alienating values of industrial capitalism. Its religion was love. This tradition included Carl Jung, John Lennon and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It brought us the art films from Jean Renoir to Vittorio De Sica. We believed in the experiential educational principles of John Dewey and the therapy of Fritz Perls. It was based on the belief that there was something better to life than the world we inherited: that money, stuff and fitting in were not life’s ultimate goals and something “more” was worth fighting for.

Unfortunately, since this scene is mostly passed and not comprehended by most, my heroes are mostly dead. Ashley Montagu, Erich Fromm, Confucius and Tolstoy are all gone. (There are a few exceptions, including Harville Hendrix and some of my personal teachers who are not so well known). So I sometimes feel a little lonely at this end of the philosophical spectrum. This has increased my joy at discovering Roszak. Here’s a guy who is alive and whose thought and life I can admire. Here’s an invite, Theodore. How would you like to take on another piece of your “eldering” role? I’d love to add you to my mentor list.

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Leonard Cohen on Canada Day, 2007
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JungWhat happened to the generation that self-actualized, explored the outer reaches of consciousness, believed in peace and love and eschewed materialism for exotic paths to nirvana? They are coming back. The baby-boomers, that demographic lump that has dominated our culture for 60-odd years, is about to enter its next phase: a return to original values. When all the folks who were muddy and nude at Woodstock had to start paying rent, they had to give up their dreams of making a world based on deeper values than making a buck. And they got into money with a vengeance. 60’s idealism gave way to 70’s decadence which gave way to 80’s materialism gone wild. The binge lasted 30 years as the boomers got married and divorced, raised blended families, bought houses and went into debt. Now we can see that the winds are shifting again, and the times they are a changin.’ 74-year-old sexy poet, Zen master and musician Leonard Cohen is stunning sold-out crowds at concerts. The right-wingnuts of Darwinian economics and draconian foreign affairs have given way to dialogue and fairness. Stevie Wonder, who once made an album to help make plants grow with love, is in the White House.

Carl Jung recognized that people’s needs changed once they passed the mid-line of life. We have pushed back that threshold and 60 is the new middle-aged. In this life phase we get to stop being the hero and going out to conquer the world or being the caretaker. The boomer’s parents are going or gone, and the kids are out of the house. The college bills have stopped coming in. Husbands and wives are looking across the table and seeing that they are actually married to someone and the relationship that has taken a back seat to soccer games now needs some attention because its the only thing these people have. This refocus on relationship brings people back to themselves again. When we get to this point in life, Jung recognized, we once again have a total recentering of identity that parallels what we went through in adolescence. In the book Passages, Gail Sheehy called this phase middlessence. At this change, our needs turn inward. We begin to look for the deeper meaning of our lives. We have the time to consider what is of real importance to us. We recognize the compromises we have made, and along with coming to an acceptance of them, we reevaluate our priorities. The baby boomers are coming to realize that though they were trying to do the best they could, they lost something essential along the way and didn’t even realize it. As my favorite sage, Mencius, said, “When people’s dogs and chicks are lost we go out and look for them, but when people’s hearts  — or original nature — are lost we do not go out and look for them.”  But as boomers are hitting 60, they are remembering the values that were paramount in their youth, and there is a longing to return to their “original nature.” If you find yourself going to YouTube and listening to “All You Need is Love,” and remembering how much it meant when you heard that song for the first time, you can bet that you are in middlessence.

There is a great promise in this new life stage. The passing thrill of self-examination that occured in adolescence takes on a deeper cast as we begin to see the shadows of the end when we enter this phase of life. It is time for us to become what the archetypal psychologists call the senex. This is when we become the wise elder who through the experience of a lifetime can now understand the ways of the universe and help the next generation hold onto the essential.

What does this change mean in terms of our culture? We are already seeing a cultural shift in our politics; ironically it took our first post-boomer president to recognize this desire for a return to original values. This is the role of the redeemer; he is always a figure of renewal. What we can look forward to in the next several years is a culture that is deeper, less ephemeral, less concerned with an instant, short term result and is more interested in eternal truths. We can look for a culture that helps people to define and manifest what will be their lasting legacies. Research shows that this generation is interested in lifelong learning, and we will see a great surge in adult education as people do not want to be put out to pasture or the shuffleboard court, but want to grow throughout their lives. We can see a great increase in people coming together and working to make the world a better place. Certainly in our culture there is a great premium on youth and baby boomers certainly want to deny that they are aging and do all they can to stay young. Hopefully, they will realize that the best way to do this is to rejoin a process of self-cultivation that they may have put aside decades ago; that true youth rests in spiritual development; and that they can recapture their lost days by returning to the highest ideals of the 60’s generation.

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