Oh, what Betty White can teach us all.
Listen up. The self-effacing funny woman who wowed a record 12 million viewers on "Saturday Night Live" is less a throwback to the past than a portent of the future.
As the saying goes, if you're not aging, you're no longer living. And if current demographic trends hold, it won't be long before older Americans outnumber youngsters. From that perspective, the fascination with White isn't as puzzling as it is telling.
Yet she'd barely finished her monologue when all sorts folks began weighing in, trying to decipher her 88-year-old aura. Was her popularity simply due to people "giving the old lady a pass"? Did she rack up the highest ratings in years for "SNL" because of her bawdy sexual quips? Advertising honchos ascribed White's popularity to her retro feel, her ability to be a bankable soother in times of economic uncertainty. Meanwhile, another reviewer detected an "archtypal example of old/new new media partnership."
That is a reference to the fact that half a million fans joined a Facebook campaign to draft the aging starlet to her recent role as host of "SNL." And, of course, the curmudgeon crowd is now barking "enough already."
But I disagree. We shouldn't let White disappear back to obscurity. We should be asking, How do we cultivate more Betty Whites? How can we invite seniors to remain vibrant, engaged with younger generations, willing and able to reinvent themselves but only by tweaks, not by wholesale reincarnation? It's no idle question, for an abundance of this group is coming.
In seven years, the number of people in the world under the age of 5 years old and those above the age of 65 will criss-cross — meaning, there will be more elderly people around than the toddlers.
Extrapolate 30 years forward and the number of elderly may be double that of the very young.
The global ramifications can't be understated. This will be a first. Throughout history, the number of people under the age of 5 has always been higher than those at the other end of life. Not so in the future. Europe, with its declining birthrates, will get there first.
But the U.S. is quickly following as the baby boomers age.
So if you are prone to making blue-haired old lady jokes — as White is herself — you're going to have a lot of material to work with.
Within the next 20 years, 44 states will have age distributions similar to those now found in Florida. And the joke is on whom? Seems to me the put-them-out-to-pasture attitude so many have toward the elderly needs an adjustment, and fast. No society can function well if a large proportion of its population is deemed obsolete.
Maybe, subconsciously, what White's renewed popularity represents is a shift in the public mindset.
Maybe we are slowly grasping the reality that a large chunk of the population is not getting the chance it deserves to contribute to society and the economy.
White's age cohort, people over 85, wasn't much studied as a demographic in prior generations. Soon they will increasingly be seen as a force to be reckoned with. Virtually every aspect of life will be affected by seniors — transportation, housing, labor markets, healthcare, to name an obvious few. And more families will find themselves comprised of four living generations — think of how that could change family dynamics.
So Betty White is the future. Or she could be. Obviously not everyone will enjoy her relative good health, her mass marketable talents and cheery disposition. But, as a role model, few beat the spunk of Betty White. Long live the Golden Girl!
Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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