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A question for the ages tests Oceanside

UNION-TRIBUNE
December 23, 2004

I love hopeless odds.

Nothing stirs my blood more than the phrase "doomed to failure."

As a case in point, consider this gallant charge of the geriatric light brigade.

It seems Oceanside's Senior Citizens Commission is struggling with the basic concept of a $12 million center to be built next year in the city's undeveloped El Corazon property.

What makes the noble mission impossible?

Simply this: The center is supposed to serve the needs of everyone above the age of 55, a standard cutoff for "senior" benefits.

The futility of this enterprise is so obvious that the commission is struggling to come up with a suitable name for the facility.

The tentative label - Adult Community Center - wonon't fly because it's false on its face.

Anyone over the age of 18 can sign up to fight in Iraq. Three years later, they can order a beer. You're going to tell these "Echo Boomers," as they're called, that they're not "adults"?

On the other end of the spectrum, "senior" center won't sell because Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, will think of themselves as forever young, no matter what the mirror tells them.

Thanks to Botox, yoga and Viagra, they'll cling to the illusion of youth - or die trying. It's how they're wired.

Mixing the dwindling Greatest Generation with age-defying Boomers?

Forget it.

They're like oil and Perrier, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Dylan.

I was born in 1947, in the first wave of Boomers.

The only "senior" center I'd dream of joining would have a modern gym superior to the YMCA with clay tennis courts (easier on the knees). Anything even faintly geriatric would turn me off.

In my view, financier Bernard Baruch got it right when he said, "Old age is always 15 years older than I am."

As the O'side commission heard at a recent meeting, Boomers will have nothing to do with a center that evokes the frailty of aging. In naming the center, the commission won't fool Boomers with phrases like "junior seniors" or "active adults."

The adjective "active" is a dead giveaway. It's right off a marketing brochure for Sun City. In this context, "active" means shuffleboard and mah-jongg, not triathlons and erotic trysts.

That's not to say these two generations - Seniors, born before 1935, and Boomers - don't love each other. Of course, they do. They're bound by blood. But that doesn't mean they want to spend more than 15 minutes in a room together.

"There has never been a greater generation gap in history," said Phil Goodman, who hads Generation Transitional Marketing in Carlsbad.

A person's identity is formed from 12 to 19, Goodman explained. The seniors who survived the Depression and the War had to grow up fast. Boomers, nurtured in the bosom of prosperity, had a radically different experience, closer to Peter Pan's than Ernie Pyle's. (The influential, but relatively small, Forgotten Generation, born between 1936 and 1945, is the often discounted bridge between Seniors and Boomers.)

So how do you marry the two generations? How do you create a center that will embrace both?

The short answer is, you don't. "No matter what you call it, it won't work," Goodman judged.

Better to bite the bullet, he said. Cater to the older generation. Offer weaving, not spinning, classes. Pipe in Dorsey, not Dylan. Call it what it is - a senior center. Blow off the Boomers.

The Grim Reaper will do his work. As the center's clientele dies off - after all, 1.7 million Seniors are leaving us each year - retool the center as a cool Boomer hangout with gym and Starbucks latte flowing in fountains of eternal youth.

As a footnote, I find it interesting that Boomers can disagree over the issue of senior discounts.

My wife, also 57, relishes the prospect of paying less for movies and hotels. She has no problem stating out loud that she is over 55 so long as there's a financial reward.

Personally, I don't want the charity. Makes me feel old when I don't feel old. Similarly, I have no interest in joining AARP, even if there are benefits. It's a fraternity to which I do not wish to belong. (In this, I'm not alone: Only 13 percent of Boomers sign up with AARP, Goodman told me, and 50 percent of those who do join drop out after one year.)

When I told Goodman about my domestic conflict, he chuckled good-naturedly, as if this subject had come up many times during lectures.

He described a typical Boomer male going out on what promises to be a romantic date.

What are the chances, he asked, that our hopeful Lothario is going to insist upon a $2 senior discount at the movies?

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