Sue Grant-Marshall, co-author with me of “Mind the Gap”, our book about the generation gap, has written a nice primer on generational attitudes to health. It was published in the Business Day on 30 August 2006 – read it here.
Maybe, more than any other personal factor, health care and attitudes to health are influenced by a person’s generation. Massive advances in medical science over the last 80 years have resulted in huge shifts in people’s expectations for their lives, and this has in turn impacted on their values and aspirations.

We are living longer and ageing better thanks to advances in surgery, medicine, pharmacology, food science, public health and sanitation. So what’s your generation type and how are you doing health-wise, asks SUE GRANT-MARSHALL
WE ARE often told that health is in your head — your attitude towards life and the manner in which you live will determine your way of dying. You may scoff at the notion, but few will deny that the way we were raised has a huge influence on how we live, if only because we tend to react against our upbringing and parenting.
That is generational theory, first mooted by sociologist Margaret Mead. Health is a powerful generational issue. A large part of understanding what drives you, your parents, teenagers or grandparents, concerns their health and attitude to wellness and ageing.
The stage-hogging generation, the Boomers (see generation definitions on this page), now in their 40s and 50s, refuse to accept ill health. A doctor, a drug — something must fix it. Even more important to them is ageing. They are simply “not going there”. Wrinkles, sags, dentures, arthritis — it’s not on their schedule. Plastic surgery is. Big time. They are determined to live longer more beautifully and physically fit than anybody has done before.
Look no further than age-defying Madonna as the ultimate symbol of the Boomer health attitude. Slap bang in the middle of the Boomer generation at 47, she is stunning audiences watching her Confessions tour with her lithe, slim, energetic figure, the result of hours of yoga and Pilates each day.
For the elderly GI and Silent generations, keeping healthy and pain-free is their biggest cost and often dominates their lives. As youngsters they had no idea that medicine, nutrition and hygiene would extend their lives, keeping them earth-bound well beyond what they consider to be their sell-by-date. Many of their retirement plans do not cover their longevity.
In the past century, thousands of people have lived twice as long as they were supposed to. Every year the number of people celebrating their 100th birthday doubles.
Boomers are astonished they survived their childhoods when they survey today’s obsession with hygiene and warning labels on every tin, bottle and household appliance. They ate food that fell to the kitchen floor and lived to tell the tale. That was normal and mothers didn’t grab the nearest disinfectant bottle and spray everything in sight. Life was a lot more relaxed.
Today there’s nothing relaxed about the manner in which Boomers are swallowing food supplements and drugs in their battle against ageing. They take pills to lower cholesterol, boost memory, eliminate the pain of arthritis, control bone loss, halt incontinence and foster hair growth.
Mental deterioration is as frightening to Boomers as is age. Three decades after they launched the aerobics craze, the spectre of forgetfulness has led to another type of training — mental aerobics.
Today Boomers attend memory classes, where they’re taught that mental exercise, from crossword puzzles, bridge, using both hands and learning another language, all help to stave off mental decline — the “use it or lose it” approach.
One of the greatest fears Boomers face is the prospect of caring for their Silent-generation parents who missed out on food supplements such as ginseng, soy milk, omega 3 and 6 fats, and antioxidants. Consequently, the Silents are suffering the brunt of heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s and degenerative eye conditions that are landing them in homes.
Boomers, who looked forward to inheriting the family home, are selling it instead to pay for their parents’ medical care. As Boomers head into true middle age, they’re concentrating their formidable energy on a whole range of exercising that will help them slow down the ravages of time. Pilates, shiatsu, kung-fu and yoga classes are all the rage. Reflexology, acupuncture and iridology are some of the treatments they are passionate about.
Xers, now in their 20s and 30s, accept with a certain weariness (and wariness) that they are going to have to live a long time to prop up sagging medical aids to pay for the health-care needs of their Boomer parents. So, they’re pumping iron and watching their cholesterol counts in a manner their parents and grandparents would never have dreamt of doing when they were hardly out of their teens.
The Millennials, now children and teens, are determined, in an age obsessed with image and glamour, to be slim and beautiful. Think of the impact that metrosexual David Beckham and his Spice(y) wife Victoria have on millions the world over. So Millennials are pumping even more iron than the Xers, and sweating the treadmill circuit.
In addition, they cannot afford to be ill because, increasingly, they and the Xers will create their own work and not slave in big womb-to-tomb nanny corporations. A day spent not working is a day without pay. In future, for them the definition of “being sick” will increasingly be “sick” as in “you can’t walk” or “you are in hospital”. Nothing less will do.
Most Silents were able to take a day off work as sick leave without losing financially and they can’t understand why their (sick) grandchildren never give their bodies a chance to heal with bed rest. Xers and Millennials are amazed that anybody ever takes to their beds ill. And that brings us back to the cosseted GI generation, for whom the word “teenager” was first coined. They grew up strong due to the vitamins and “protective” foods especially created for their growing bodies, and seldom took to their beds. We’ve come full circle.
Sue Grant Marshal is coauthor with Graeme Codrington of Mind The Gap (Penguin R110).

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