A generation that won’t go quietly
07 October 2008
It seems that Steve Fossett died an adventurer’s death. During his 63 years on earth, he had sailed impossible voyages, broken records in hot-air balloons, swum the English Channel, climbed a few mountains, including the Matterhorn and Mount Kilimanjaro. Then, last September, while apparently looking for a site on which to make an attempt at the world land-speed record, he flew his plane into the side of a mountain in the Sierra Nevada, California.
There have been various theories as to what happened. His single-engine aircraft was not designed to fly at heights. There may have been visibility problems.
Now, with the discovery of the wreckage of Fossett’s aircraft with human remains nearby, murkier claims have been made. Will Hasley, who helped Fossett write his memoirs in 2006, has spoken about a “subconscious death wish”. There had been tensions at home apparently – his wife had hoped he might concentrate less on breaking world records now that he was in his sixties and spend more time with her.
There were money problems. Although he had reluctantly accepted sponsorship, he resented the idea that the name of a beer company or an airline would be attached to his achievements.
Accident or suicide, the way Steve died is entirely consistent with the way he lived – brave, uncompromising, egocentric. When one of his family commented that at least Steve had been spared becoming an old man and having to give up his adventures, she was on the right track.
For those who came of age in the Sixties, as Fossett did, the defiant anthems of the time may have been about hoping to die before you got old but most lived on and are now facing the possibility that their days of adventure will – or at least should – soon be over. They are responding to the prospect of old age rather differently from their forbears.
It is usually a futile exercise to analyse particular decades as if human behaviour conforms neatly to historical chronology, but the post-war generation which grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s represented a profound change of attitude. It was impatient with the past and had a heady sense of its own youthful power.
Now, just as they once refused to behave in the socially approved manner of young people, they are bringing the same bolshy egotism to old age. The world is telling them to slow down but they are not ready, and may never be. The forever-young generation has failed to mature. It has no time for the dignity of age, for general appropriateness and seemliness.
That can be tough on those around them. In his new memoir, Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me, Cosmo Landesman writes with painful good humour about how his parents, Jay and Fran – counter-culture A-listers in the Sixties – have grown old with a singular lack of grace, both engaged in crazed self-promotion in the hope that they might hit the big-time in their dotage.
A few years older than the baby-boomers, the Landesmans may be giving us an idea of what will happen when the children of the Sixties generation grow truly, undeniably old. Many of them will continue to adventure, breaking world records, touring in bands, declining to moderate their sexual excesses (take a bow Ronnie Wood and Max Mosley) and generally misbehaving. The love and peace generation, with its defiant greed for life, is unlikely to go quietly.