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Baby Boomers and the Peter Pan Syndrome

Baby Boomers and the Peter Pan Syndrome
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By Steve Weinstein

Accused of everything from a culture of permissiveness that has undermined the nuclear family to over-involved helicopter parents, Baby Boomers are now blamed for an American populated by infantilized child-men, a nation of Peter Pans. As Russell Mead wrote in the American Interest, “What the Boomers as a generation missed was the core set of values that every generation must discover to make a successful transition to real adulthood: maturity.”

Dan Kiley’s 1983 pop-psych book “The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up” first identified this mass exodus away from adult responsibilities and gave it a name. In 2011, with Kay Hymowitz’s “Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys,” the Peter Pan Syndrome entered the national conversation, where it has taken on the mantle of accepted wisdom.

According to Hymowitz, women entering the workforce undermined men’s self-confidence. Having invaded previous male-dominated preserves like higher education, the clergy and the military, they dealt the deathblow to traditional masculinity by insisting the menfolk become less insensitive and treat them as equals.

Hollywood, as usual, gets its share of the blame as well. In a Newsweek essay called “Immature Men Won’t Grow Up.” George Will accused TV sitcoms as degenerating from the all-knowing patriarch of “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” to Meathead, the overeducated loser in “All in the Family.” Sitcoms like “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” according to Will, have fostered “a culture of extended youth utterly unlike the world of young adults in previous generations.

The New York Times’ senior film critic, A.O. Scott asserted as fact that “a man is, at last, a triumphant boy, with access to money, sex and freedom but without the sad grown-up ballast of duty and compromise.” When Scott reviewed “The Interview,” he was clearly annoyed that it was a film about “the usual spectacle of male sexual, emotional and existential confusion” that managed to cause a crisis between the U.S. and North Korea.

Persistent generational critic Hugo Schwyzer, in a 2013 essay in The Atlantic, “What If Men Stopped Chasing Much Younger Women,” sees stars like Johnny Depp as inspiring aging Boomers to ditch their wives in favor of nubile arm candy. Schwyzer ignores the fact that this is something Hollywood stars have been doing since Charlie Chaplin serially wooed and Errol Flynn bedded girls barely out of puberty. Nor does it bother him that, as Christopher Ryan has pointed out, this scenario belittles younger women as empty vessels.

Dozens of similar articles keep piling on example after example of aging men behaving badly. Bill Clinton dallied with a young intern and thereby provoked a national crisis. Charlie Sheen trashed a New York hotel room cavorting with prostitutes. It’s not so much lust that gets these “aging Lotharios” (Schwyzer’s term) off; it’s their pathetic attempt to stave off the inevitability of old age. And, of course, there is the über-Peter Pan, Hugh Hefner, who cloisters himself with a bevy of buxom blondes young enough to be his granddaughters.

As a gay men, I’ve gotten used to this broad-based accusation that men over 50 who dare to venture into bar or nightclubs are “Lost Boys that are terrified of actually looking their age and are always fighting off time instead of aging gracefully” That, at least is how twentysomething blogger Dalton Heinrich put down all of the “middle aged party men cruising the night clubs for a one night stand” he blogged about last summer.

Heinrich’s essay quickly went viral — and not in a good way for the author. The tsunami of negative comments made some great points but I’ll limit myself to these two:

  • The problem in the gay community isn’t older men going to the club, it’s gay people that judge other gay people for simply doing what they genuinely want to do.
  • Can’t someone be successful or a mentor in his professional life and still have a fun night now and then?

These, I believe, cut to the heart of what really underlies the full-frontal national assault on all Boomer men, gay and straight. Rather than accepting the old rules and settling into quiet retirement, we’re refusing to “act our age.”

“The youth worship of the recent past” was, wrote Julian West In his book, “Baby Boomers: Learn the Secret of Aging Gracefully,” “not triggered only by a desire to look and a fear of growing old. Baby boomers love youth because of its enthusiasm, idealism and commitment to causes. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to have fun.”

The Baby Boomers grew up in the shadow of the “Greatest Generation,” and, as Gary Cross wrote in “Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity, “Many look back on the World War II generation as models of male maturity.” By this yardstick, Cross and so many others argue, Boomers have failed miserably. Cross advised us to “just contrast George Bush senior with his son.”

But wait: Isn’t that the same George Bush who last June celebrated his 90th birthday by skydiving out of a helicopter? What nonagenarian does something that crazy? In 2006, the last members of America’s pioneering World War II combat ski patrol unit met in New Hampshire for a downhill ski race. “Nellie is a wonder. And fast, too,” John McDonald, 81, told the New York Times at the time about fellow competitor Nelson Bennett, 92, a fellow competitor in a fierce downhill-skiing competition.

Or consider late-in-life Peter Pan Malcolm Forbes. At 48, the wealthy magazine founder took up riding a Harley and became a full-fledged hell raiser, escorting Liza Taylor (herself hardly the “Whistler’s Mother” type) to one his wild parties in his sybaritic Casablanca palace. Forbes, incidentally, was a fanatical collector of toy soldiers, eventually amassing 100,000 figures. Too bad he died before Dr. Phil could enlighten him that any grown man who collects action figures was a Peter Pan.

Will sees rockers like the Rolling Stones and “another “long-in-the-tooth act,” the Who, not as not great musicians who continue to thrill packed stadiums, but “my generation’s obsession with youth and its memories” (this despite their fan base spanning the decades). Undoubtedly, Will would have preferred that classical composers like Franz Lizst, or Joseph Hadyn who continued to write great music well into their ‘70s had stopped pretending they were washed-up has-beens.

If there’s one line Will and others love to throw back at the Boomers, it’s the Who’s “Hope I die before I get old.” Alas, many, like pioneering modern dancer Martha Graham, didn’t heed those words.

Graham’s retirement sent her into a spiral of alcoholism and depression that culminated in a suicide attempt. “I had lost the will to live,” she later said. “I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded.” After her crisis, she found the renewed strength to return to the company she had founded, reorganize it and choreograph acclaimed new works.

She learned the hard way what the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said many years before: “Men do not quit playing because they grow old,” wrote. “They grow old because they quit playing.”

Old age is whatever you want it to be, whether it’s jumping out of helicopters, downhill skiing, rocking the Casbah or rocking and rolling. If having a great time means being saddled with “Peter Pan Syndrome” — well, maybe the sprite that vowed “I won’t grow up” had the right idea after all.

Better to be a Peter Pan than to be peeing into a hospital pan.

 

 

 

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Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein is a journalist who had interned at the Sunday Times of London and has written for New York Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (online), CNBC.com and The Village Voice among others. He has edited Crain's New York Business, Edge Media Network, the New York Blade and New York Press, and authored The Q Guide to Fire Island (Alyson, 2007). He lives in Midtown Manhattan with two Staffordshire pit bulls.