Talking About My Generation, ‘Mad Men’ Style

The popular AMC drama Mad Men recently earned 19 Emmy nominations, the highest number accorded any regular series this year.

Part of the appeal of watching Mad Men is realizing just how much America has changed since the ’60s — and how much it’s stayed the same.

Relations between the sexes is one aspect of society the show focuses on; another is the influence of youth culture. And both are viewed through the lens of the lead character, ad exec and womanizer extraordinaire, Don Draper.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Don’s character is how, despite the free pass his good looks, confidence, and occasional charm grant him, he still has to grapple with how to be cool and relevant when he’s approaching middle age, married with three kids, and living in the burbs. If suave Don feels that kind of insecurity creeping up on him as the decade progresses, imagine how it felt for average (and real) people at that time.

After all, the ’60s was the wrong decade to be middle-aged; the youth movement saw to that. There were the slogans (“Don’t trust anyone over 30”), the song lyrics (“Hope I die before I get old”), the movies depicting parents as sell-outs (“Just one word: plastics”). There were the divisive issues of the day that stretched the generation gap to its snapping point: drugs, Vietnam, free love, the anti-establishment. There was flower power.

Any attempt on the part of people in their 30s or beyond to seem youthful only appeared ridiculous to young people, further igniting their contempt. There was Mike Douglas, talk show host, “rapping” with John and Yoko, and Richard Nixon saying “Sock it to me!” on the Laugh-In show.

Mad Men captures this no-win situation in the scenes where Don is hanging out with his bohemian, artsy, Greenwich Village girlfriend, Midge, and her friends. In Don’s midtown world, he’s Mr. Smooth, with an uncomplicated attitude about the business of advertising (“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”). In Midge’s world, he’s The Man, selling his soul for a salary.

Getting older during the ’60s was a cruel fate: it was unfair; it was depressing. But, in some respects, it was a party compared to getting older these days.

Back then there was a limit to what you could do to give the impression of youthfulness. A man could stop wearing a hat to achieve that Jack Kennedy air of reckless nonchalance. He could grow his hair and sideburns. He could follow the exercises in a Jack LaLanne book to keep from developing a big gut. If he didn’t mind looking foolish, he could wear bellbottom jeans and a peace sign pendant. He could hide his Perry Como records in the basement and take his kids to a Fifth Dimension concert. That was about all.

A woman was similarly limited in what she could do to appear young. She could grow her hair long and color over the gray. She could apply lots of powder-blue eye shadow and pale pink lip gloss. She could weigh her food portions on a “tippy” scale. If she didn’t mind looking foolish, she could wear mini-skirts and go-go boots. She could learn to play folk guitar like Joan Baez. That was about all.

Today, the pressure to seem young is just as relentless as it was in the ’60s. What’s changed is that the means to achieving this goal are now endless. And because the means exist, women (and increasingly, men) are expected to employ them. But to do so requires an obscene expenditure of time, money, energy, and thought.

Just thinking of the variety of fitness machines, regimens, DVDs, classes, and personal trainers available today should be enough to burn calories. There are nearly as many diets as there are varieties of food. And then there are prescription and over-the-counter diet pills and supplements, metabolism boosters, countless brands of low-fat and non-fat foods, and gastric bypass surgery. Hair care is more involved than ever, with hot oil and deep-conditioning treatments, flat irons and curling irons, Japanese and Brazilian hair straightening systems, highlights and lowlights, drugs to prevent baldness, and on and on and on.

And that’s not even touching upon cosmetic surgery.

As tough as it was for people in the ’60s to turn middle-aged at the precise time in history when aging was viewed as something of a crime, at least there wasn’t much they could do about it. Don Draper has his definition of happiness; I have mine: It’s doing nothing when there’s nothing to be done. How wonderful life would be if there were no health clubs, no option to have the fat vacuumed out of one’s body, no diet more complicated than remembering to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day!

Perhaps this is a case of “What goes around comes around.” After all, it’s the perpetrators of the ’60s youth movement who are now its chief victims. I wonder if even Don Draper could have predicted that.