The Merrian-Webster Online Dictionary defines “curmudgeon” as “a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man.” A particular passion among curmudgeons is to talk about the sorry state of the world today. Things are not as good as they used to be, whether in the realm of politics (“Where are leaders like Reagan?”), manners (“What happened to respect for your elders?”), morals (“People didn’t use to be just out for themselves like now.”), popular culture (“There aren’t any singers like Frank Sinatra anymore”) or relationships (“Marriage vows mean nothing nowadays”). There never was a golden age, of course. Things are probably worse now in some ways, but better in others—there has been real progress in medicine, race relations, and gender equality, for example.
Are we all destined to become curmudgeonly in old age? Will we all eventually think everything used to be better than it is now? If we live long enough, we certainly will remember a time when life was better for us in particular. Of course, the deterioration of our personal circumstances is not the same thing as the deterioration of society as a whole.
We remain a part of the larger culture as we age, yet our relationship to it changes. In a comment on the New Yorker website a few months ago, George Packer wrote that “American culture belongs to the young, and, for that reason, it isn’t really mine any more. . . . Yet, I still live in the culture, experience it, react to it.” He is hesitant to write anything about contemporary music or literature because he fears the obvious retort—that he’s too old to get it. He points out ways in which we who are older actually may not get it:
“You’re never more open to new experience than when you’re twenty. After that, the need to make money, the fear of having no work, the demands of children, the sense that the world is moving in strange new directions, the appearance of unfamiliar forms of expression that inevitably seem less wonderful than the ones that changed your life when you were twenty cause the aperture to slowly narrow.”
I have XM radio in my car, and listen to popular music from the 40s until now. I find things to appreciate in every decade, but, as Packer would suggest, the music from the 60’s, when I was a teenager, seems particularly wonderful. I love “Deep Purple,” “Rhythm of the Rain,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “Pretty Woman.” Even songs I didn’t think much of at the time sound pretty good to me now. That is an emotional response, not a critical one; I know this isn’t great music, just music with positive associations for me.
Packer admits to the biases that come with age, but adds, “Some judgments need time and a basis for comparison. Age can make things clearer.” Things become clearer not as a result of experience alone but as a result of the gradual construction and articulation of a perspective on the world, a viewpoint from which to observe cultural goings-on. I’m heavily influenced by Reformed Christianity, which emphasizes transformational engagement with the culture in which one lives, and that background has made me curious about how culture reshapes the basic human needs—for achievement, belonging, respect, and meaning—into a multitude of forms. Rather than becoming narrower and more intolerant through the years, I think I’ve become more appreciative of this cultural menagerie. In regard to popular music, I have to admit that I like Pink, Mumford and Sons, and Bruno Mars. I think the Lumineers “Ho Hey” is maybe the catchiest song ever. I don’t seem to be making much progress towards becoming a curmudgeon. . . .