Two years ago I spoke at the Florida Boomer Lifestyle Conference in Clearwater, Florida. I entitled my presentation "The Mission, The Man, The Money: Marketing to Baby Boomer Men." My goal was to inspire this audience about business possibilities revolving around Boomer male aging in a society that has often marginalized aging men.
I wanted my audience to understand why and how Boomer men will challenge the stereotypes and social strictures of aging. This is a generation that has never settled for outdated traditions, and collectively men over 50 will create new images of male aging: concepts that are humanistic, individualistic and empowered. The sociology of Boomer male aging has vast implications for business, from edgy new products to inspired services.
On a concurrent track I happened to be reading Existentialism for Beginners, a concise book written by David Cogswell, one of my high school classmates and a friend from our college years. Although I once designed and taught a university course entitled "Topics and Problems on Humanistic and Existential Psychology," it is lamentable how much I had forgotten about existentialism and how extensively this philosophy pervades contemporary thinking and culture. It's a philosophy for today as all Americans struggle to discover how to redefine and reinvent themselves in a time of much economic uncertainty and global unrest, a time when traditional institutions seem to be faltering.
David Cogswell brilliantly grapples with the complexities of existential philosophy and all the major writers contributing to this revolution in thought that emerged into popular culture following dark years of fascism and World War II (although he correctly traces the roots of existentialism back to the mid-19th century).
As Cogswell writes, "Existentialism focuses attention and concern on the individual over the group..." And he conveys a liberating idea: "To achieve an authentic life, an individual must direct oneself and resist the pressure of mass society to create standardized human beings."
With Boomer men sensing the end of their primary careers and a future rife with uncertainties -- economic, social and medical -- many are now considering how to avoid becoming standardized aging humans. Many realize that to resist society's impositions -- stereotypes of aging males, lack of clear purpose that can accompany retirement, and wrenching searches for deeper meaning, for relevance, for a sense of legacy -- they must do as existentialists intone.
"There is not fixed definition of a human being," Cogswell clarifies. "We define ourselves through our choices and actions. We find ourselves in the world, existing in a particular situation, but must go forward from there to create ourselves."
This is the power and perplexity of a life-stage so bereft of clear-cut paths. Living beyond 50 and 60 compels most men to understand their fundamental values and then ascertain how those values can best be expressed for personal enrichment and enduring benefits for others.
In my Florida speech I presented some interesting new research about happiness. According to researchers, humans seem to find greatest happiness early in adulthood and then again late in life, beyond 50 and 60. Between those bookends looms a mid-life slump when we feel least happy with our situation.
For American men, that deep trough arrives around age 56, a chronological anniversary that so many men are now experiencing. The low point for American women arrives nearly a decade earlier, possibly in tandem with menopause and empty nesting.
Roughly 12,273,000 American men are now between 55 and 59, so, according to this research, millions are struggling with depression and futility that robs us of our sense of life satisfaction, our happiness. It's not too much of a leap to conclude that many of these men are grappling with the potential wasteland of an aging life, a sunset not fully validated with continuing engagement, enrichment and purpose.
Individual men may feel powerless against external forces of unemployment, layoffs, downsizing and chronic diseases. But when a generation of men known to challenge authority confronts this evolving life-stage, transformative beliefs and actions can emerge. A generation of men that embraced feminism and racial inclusiveness can create new constructs for male aging, conceptions that are engaging, uplifting and liberating.
Author Cogswell identifies Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900) as the "soul of existentialism," a thinker who has influenced contemporary psychology, literature, spirituality, art and music. Nietzsche wrote that "society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members." And it seems true today that millions of Boomer men, vital and engaged as many now are, must nevertheless consider how traditional habits in western society could conspire to strip them of their opportunities to thrive beyond 60 and into bonus years promised so many.
I concluded my Florida speech by resurrecting words written more than a century ago by Walt Whitman:
"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
"And what I assume you shall assume,
"For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."
"I too am not a bit tamed,
"I too am untranslatable,
"I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world."
Whitman's thoughts are a metaphor, reflective of the heart of a generation of men looking into the mirror and seeing the face of male aging. They will not be tamed in the sense of outdated traditions around aging, and collectively they will bring new meaning to this life-stage while stimulating reinvention of the businesses and brands that serve them.
As the great writers about existentialism would urge, Boomer men must resist all forces compelling them to become standardized old men. YAWP!