November 12th, 2006



I'm sitting with a 22 year-old Japanese girl at the KulturForum, the Berlin culture bunker behind the Sony Centre. It's late summer, and we're sipping white beer on a wooden terrace. Some skate kids are rolling around the concrete nearby, but at the tables around us everyone seems to be exactly 60 years old. I apologize to Nao. "I haven't exactly brought you to the funkiest place, have I?" Later, we run into a crowd coming out of a classical music concert nearby. Again, everyone is 60.

There's something about 60 year-old people. They seem to blend into the background. You don't really see them... until suddenly you realize they're almost 100% of the audience at many cultural events, even avant garde ones. (Think of Robert Wilson snoozefests at the Lincoln Centre in New York.) They make a lot of cultural life possible, because they have leisure time and disposable income. And yet it's hard not to find them bland and annoying, with their bald spots, their beige clothes, their slow pace, their bourgeois affluence. Look, they're even at Peres Projects openings, beiging out the pink and yellow highlights worn by the 20- and 30something hipsters!

"The young generation's estrangement from the classical world is perhaps a global phenomenon," wrote Tetsuya Ozaki, editor of RealTokyo, in a recent column detailing a trip to London. "Even the Michael Clark Company's "Mmm...", which I saw at Barbican Centre, was visited mainly by elder people, so maybe it's not only an estrangement from classics, but even from high art altogether. For this time's "Stravinsky Project" the "punk ballet" choreographer is using the music of Wire, P.I.L. and the Sex Pistols, so I'm not sure if Clark's work deserves an attribute like "high art", but considering that he made his debut in 1980, it's certainly a fairly "classical" artist, at least for the young generation. In the piece, by the way, appears an image of "Mona Lisa" that gradually morphs into Andy Warhol's "Liz". Today's young people surely have no idea who Elizabeth Taylor was. As a matter of fact beyond the artist's intentions, Lisa becoming Liz in a contemporary setting surely has no more allegorical meaning."

I speak as someone bang in the middle between the 20somethings and the 60somethings. I can spend time with both age groups, and find common ground. The knack is just to remember not to make any references your listeners won't understand. (Will 20somethings know that calling them "20something" is an allusion to a 1980s TV series called Thirtysomething? Best not to assume it.)

I'm starting to share the oldie's grumbly hatred of many aspects of modern life -- cell phones, MySpace, stupid jeans and stupid trainers, stupid loud music in stupid clubs, the sheer savagery of casual dating. Then again, plenty of 22 year-olds hate that stuff too. I know I did. Back then, I thought Josef Beuys, Jacques Brel and Samuel Beckett were the funkiest people imagineable. What was cool was to be old, and have that sort of old person's wisdom, compassion, cynicism, self-knowledge.

I remember thinking, when I was 25, that it was just 15 years until I was 40, and being terrified, because it meant becoming responsible and established. It hasn't turned out how I imagined. In fact, being in your 40s -- for me, anyway -- is pretty much like being a student, only older. You know who you are a bit better, you have more anecdotes to tell people. So now there's a new prospect of terror; it's just 15 years until I'm one of those culturally-active 60somethings myself. So the horizon of unacceptable oldness has receded: it's now 60somethings, en masse (because, sure, there are cool ones with names like Waits and Wyatt), who define utter beige, slow, bourgeois naffness.

Because I'm a tail-end boomer living in countries with increasing numbers of old people in them, the invisible oldies everywhere are just going to get more visible, and more numerous. And one day, not so terribly distant, I'll be one of them. As I age, the people around me at cultural events in cities like Berlin and Tokyo will get older too, until there's just this sea of baldy grey heads and saggy eyebags everywhere I go. And I'll catch sight of myself in the mirror, and I'll look pretty much like everyone else.

"I saw "Reading Beckett" at Theatre Tram right before leaving Japan," continues Ozaki. "It was a rather sober event of readings of Samuel Beckett's later novels and dramas, but even here I didn't see many young people in the audience. The youngest was probably around 45, and the average age of visitors I would estimate between 55 and 60. If these performances continued like this for another 10, 20 years, the average age would almost reach the 80 mark... Added the facts that 1939-born director Ota Shogo is now 87, '46-born Toshima Shigeyuki 80, and actor Kanze Hideo (born in 1927) even 99, I wouldn't be surprised if they just discontinued the event."

Of course, the Reaper will probably discontinue them first. Or, as old people's culture magazine The Oldie puts it, "everyone buys it eventually".