A Trend Emerges
Cultural historians and social psychologists examine the human psyche and behavior from different perspectives; yet, both disciplines articulate similar observations about what human beings do and don’t do. Historians can tell us what happened at a certain point in time; psychologists sometimes inform us of why we humans do what we do under conditions occurring at those specific points in time.
Let’s look at a concrete example. A cultural historian can enlighten us about the cigarette smoking trends of post-World War II America, a time when, unfortunately, a majority of Americans smoked tobacco, especially males. These observers can point to contributing factors such as World War II vets becoming addicted to free cigarettes provided by the US military during the war. Or advertising dominance on television by cigarette power brands such as Lucky Strike and Marlboro. Or manipulation of thought leaders as to the alleged safety of smoking, whether by engaging celebrity endorsers or convincing fringe members of the medical community to assure the public that cigarettes pose no health risks. Some advertisements from that time suggest that cigarette smoking can be a health-promoting habit, a ridiculous conjecture as seen through a contemporary lens informed by decades of clinical research.
Social psychologists can reveal some of the salient aspects of human social behavior that rooted the tobacco habit in the lives of so many. Psychologists can explain wide acceptance of a habit that on the surface and with reasonable thought cannot be justified as safe, thus posing no risks to long-term health. These experts point to such research-based notions as conformity to group norms, social impact theory, reference groups, groupthink, peer pressure, ethnocentrism, and negative social consequences.
Therefore, cultural historians can provide a detailed perspective of what happened within the social context of large groups of people at a specific time in history. Social psychologists can give us insights as to why these popular trends took hold and persisted, sometimes in the face of countervailing evidence.
Many Boomers smoked cigarettes in youth. Many also chose the healthier path of backpacking. Some of the same social drivers fomented and formed these oppositional trends: one health destructive, another health promoting.
So, today, we can also anticipate countervailing trends currently forming and gathering momentum. On the unhealthy side of the continuum, we can find members of the older generations who defy practical and prudent health practices. Around 40 percent of Boomers are overweight or obese, precipitating risks for deadly consequences such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and cancer susceptibility. A noteworthy segment of this group also abuses prescription medications such as pain killers. In terms of health consequences, these are the cigarette smokers of today—those who ignore medical advice and refuse to take personal responsibility for their long-term healthy aging.
On the other end of the spectrum are the health-practices devotees: aging Boomers and members of the Silent Generation who put vitality as central to their lives. A study by Yankelovich disclosed that 38 percent of the Boomer generation looks at vitality as a significant priority. Ninety-eight percent of this segment likes to keep active; and 81 percent rank vitality above all else on the list of personal priorities. The math works out to about 23 million Boomers who live vital lives by choice and place the actions necessary to achieve vitality as among their most significant priorities.
For sake of brevity, let’s label this segment Vitals. We can assume that those who fit into this segment are not just motivated by a single personal development commitment, whether physical fitness or consumption of organic foods. They are committed to a broad range of activities that promote health and well-being, including quite possibly an emerging cultural trend that I have labeled Ultralight Aging.
Typical of other trends rooted in modern society, Ultralight Aging, without being identified as such, has received recent attention through popular, award-winning movies. In these cinematic stories we can find artistic inspiration for the Vitals who populate the Ultralight Aging segment.
Hollywood and Ultralight Aging
For example, consider Wild, a biographical drama film adaption of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir entitled Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. The acclaimed film was produced by Hollywood celebrity Reece Witherspoon. In the cinematic version, Witherspoon portrays a tortuous but heroic through-hike along the Pacific Coast Trail, a feat accomplished by Strayed during mid-1990. Strayed was ignorant of lightweight backpacking and physically unprepared for the rigors of a 1,200-mile hike. She packed too much superfluous equipment and made many poor choices, such as buying and wearing a pair of hiking boots one-half size too small. She suffered the tortures of too much pack weight and mangled, bloody feet.
However, along the arduous trail imposing severe physical challenges, she also lost the emotional weight of many psychological travails such as a heroin habit, sexual promiscuity, an unsettling divorce, and the unresolved death of her mother, who was in her mid-forties. Strayed evolved to become lighter emotionally, finding healthier relationships that endured and discarding bad habits that forced her to make such dramatic life changes. She also became a bit wiser through “the school of hard knocks” about how to walk through the wilderness with essential but minimal gear.
The movie became wildly popular in 2014, posting box office sales in excess of $52 million against a production budget of $15 million, eventually attracting two Academy Award nominations: one for Witherspoon as Best Actress in a Leading Role, and another for Laura Dern, who played Strayed’s cancer-stricken mother, as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Witherspoon further received a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role.
This film’s critical and commercial success also portends a growing contemporary interest in through-hiking major American wilderness trails, including the Pacific Coast Trail and the Appalachian Trail, as well as less ambitious backpacking treks for those who are inflexible time-wise or not so committed to multi-month hikes.
Continuing this narrative, Robert Redford released another movie in 2015 entitled A Walk in the Woods, starring Redford in the lead role with fellow Oscar-winner Nick Nolte in a supporting role.
An adventure comedy biopic film, the humorous buddy movie nevertheless touches on some of the same themes as Wild, but also features two aging buddies who are doggedly trying to tackle a daunting through-hike.
After spending two decades in Britain, celebrated travel humorist Bill Bryson, played by Redford, returns to his native United States. In an effort to reconnect with his country and perhaps his aging self, he decides to hike the 2,200 magnificent miles of the Appalachian Trail. But while he had envisioned it as a trek of relaxation and serenity, if not another test for a physically fit older man, the journey becomes something entirely different when his philandering, out-of-shape, neurotic former friend, Stephen Katz, played by Nolte, joins him on the trip.
Then again, a third movie debuted to the public in September 2015. Wildlike is an independent film that explores the power of the wilderness to foster communication and healing.
Mackenzie is a 14-year-old precocious teenager who has been sent to live with her uncle in Juneau, Alaska, so her mother can enter a drug rehabilitation facility in Seattle. The uncle appears to be solid on the surface, but he has a darker side. He molests his niece, forcing the intrepid teenager to run away during their day-trip to a glacier near Juneau.
Mackenzie sneaks into a Juneau motel room from a balcony for shelter. When the room’s renter returns, she hides under the bed. Shortly after the man retires, he coughs, scaring her out of the room. Next morning Mackenzie returns to the motel to help herself to the complimentary breakfast buffet where she again crosses paths with the man she alarmed the previous night. Rene Bartlett wants nothing to do with this teenager, but she sits with him to discover that he is also from Seattle. She sees the middle-aged man as a potential way to get home to Seattle so she can reconnect with her mother.
However, Rene isn’t returning to Seattle soon. He is heading to Denali National Park where he intends to backpack. He is carrying a loaded backpack with his own sense of loss due to the death of his wife from cancer. When Rene discovers Mackenzie on the same bus headed to Denali, he rebuffs her again and tells her to take another bus back to Juneau. However, she stubbornly follows him into the wilderness where it eventually becomes obvious to Rene that Mackenzie will not be safe without his protection. So they trek together with the majestic Alaskan landscape as their healing backdrop.
During this wilderness journey, the unlikely duo find solace in the company of one another and help each other heal the emotional suffering from abuse and loss of a spouse. Rene finally becomes involved and committed to helping Mackenzie elude her pursuing uncle and getting safely back to Seattle.
When Hollywood shines its spotlights on a consistent story-line, such as wilderness trekking, entertainment can become a cultural trend enveloping millions into a similar mindset and the values associated with this shared perspective. Enthusiasm for wilderness trekking is not limited to a single generation, and certainly the children of Boomers, the young adult generation called Millennials, are also discovering the special virtues of traveling light through America’s magnificent wildernesses.
But the cultural trend involves more than shared enthusiasm for the themes inculcated through a Hollywood theatrical production or a memoir. The trend involves a broader orientation toward living, including health, fitness, personal development, natural products, and outdoor recreation beyond backpacking (car camping, hunting, fishing, water sports, RVing, and so forth). The trend also has massive consumerism implications, including backpacking and outdoor equipment sales, as presently being enjoyed by REI and other outdoors equipment retailers.
Further, consumers can now purchase authentic travel experiences produced and sold by REI, National Geographic, Discovery Communications, Whole Foods, and myriad other travel planning companies.
Something tangible is shifting in contemporary values, in dominant ways of thinking about the purpose and opportunities connected with ultralight travel, whether a solo backpack into Rocky Mountain National Park or an organized safari through Zimbabwe. The people most attracted to these lifestyle choices, both the majestic moments as well as the likely minor inconveniences, those most capable of affording these luxuries, are also consumers over age 50, and most prominently, Baby Boomers.
They are the adults we can describe with a single, unifying personal development concept I have labeled Ultralight Aging.
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