January 22, 2019

Gray is In

This past week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “The Hottest Hair Color of the Moment is…Gray.” Granted, it was in the “style and fashion” section (who knew there was such a thing?). Presumably, the WSJ was interested primarily because the market for hair dye is enormous. What is the significance of this trend? 
The article raises the possibility that the development represents a changing view of beauty, and perhaps even more fundamentally, a changing view of aging. Change in societal attitudes towards aging would be most welcome—and with the proportion of the American population that is over 65 now 15 percent, and expected to rise to 24 percent by 2060, overdue.
It would not be the first time that attitudes underwent a profound shift. In colonial America, historians David Hackett Fischer (Growing Old in America, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978) and W.A. Achenbaum ("Old Age in the New Land," Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980) both argue, most older people received “deference and respect [although] little love or affection.” This attitude reflected the Calvinist tradition, which venerated old age as “proof” of God’s favor. In New England, the choicest seats in the meeting house were accorded the oldest members—not those who made the largest donation. Distinguished statesmen wore white wigs as a mark of sagacity. 
George Washington on his horse
But the view changed by the post-Civil War period: Fischer says the transition to a youth-biased culture occurred between 1770 and 1820; Achenbaum places it in the 1860s, but somewhere during that time, old people fell out of favor. Arguably, things got worse in the twentieth century, with social security resulting in resentment towards older people.
But whether it was a social revolution (the rise of egalitarianism after the French Revolution) or the industrial revolution (the decline of agrarian paternalism and the demise of primogeniture that had kept the young under their father’s yoke) that triggered the shift, there is no doubt there was a shift. Today, by contrast, the major change is demographic (in 1700, an estimated 20 percent of the population could expect to live to age 70; today, 80 percent can) and medical (today, many older people remain vigorous for many of their post-retirement years). The social reality is that older people in the workforce limit the possibilities of the young—the most egregious example is the university tenure system, which can literally fossilize an entire department. And while physical function often remains good as Americans age, the scourge of dementia remains, especially among the oldest old, or those over age 80.
It’s hard to be sure what the interest in gray or silver hair dye signifies. My suspicion is that gray is just another color on the palette and thus represents a new market opportunity. Just as the past few years have brought us pink hair and purple hair, orange hair and blue hair, so now we are adding shades of gray to the list of options. There is no evidence presented in the article that a larger number of older people are opting to stay gray—evidently, they continue to dye their hair blond at the same time that younger people choose gray. 
At the heart of the issue is whether people are willing to accept themselves, and others, as they are. As long as older people opt in large numbers to dye their hair, we can be pretty sure that attitudes towards aging remain unchanged.

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