Baby Boomers hope they don't die before they get old

One after the other, they were dying: Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon, all in the same week earlier this summer. Next were Walter Cronkite, John Hughes and, in late August, at a pitch point of public grief, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Then Patrick Swayze died this month after a widely publicized struggle with pancreatic cancer.

It has been, by all appearances, an endless funereal season, with a news media swarm on the departed and a parade of nostalgic tributes, as bloggers and Twitterers went on "celebrity death watch." Even before Kennedy succumbed to brain cancer Aug. 25, columnists wrote pleading laments like one in The Washington Post that said, "God, please stop taking away our celebrities."

After Don Hewitt, the creator of "60 Minutes," and Robert Novak, the conservative columnist and commentator, died within a day of each other in mid-August, the columnists and bloggers quipped that newsmen like Dan Rather - or anyone with pop culture celebrity status - should find a bunker.

But in fact, no more celebrities had died than in past summers, according to Lou Ferrara, a managing editor in charge of entertainment and lifestyle coverage for The Associated Press.

The perception of numerous celebrity deaths was not supported by the number of obituaries the news agency wrote, he said, because it was not a matter of how many died, but who.

Consider that along with the death of Jackson, there were two other profound, if less sensational, losses in the music world: Les Paul, the inventor of the electric guitar, who is credited with transforming 20th-century pop music; and Ellie Greenwich, less known by her own name than by songs she wrote with Phil Spector and Jeff Barry - some of the biggest hits of the 1960s, including "Leader of the Pack," "Da Doo Ron Ron" and "Be My Baby."

This summer could come to be known as the summer when baby boomers began to turn to the obituary pages first, to face not merely their own mortality or ponder their legacies, but to witness the passing of legends who defined them as a tribe, bequeathing through music, culture, news and politics a kind of generational badge that has begun to fray.

"This is a historical development in cultural history," said Todd Gitlin, 66, the sociologist and author of "The Sixties," who teaches at the Columbia University School of Journalism. "It's the ebbing of figures who have a wide enough span of appreciation and admiration so they appeal to significant numbers of people, like incarnations of virtue. So people take a new measure of themselves when they ask, 'Will there ever be anybody else like X?'"

In an age when people achieve celebrity even faster than Andy Warhol could have predicted, fame is almost banal. Fairy dust can descend instantly but rubs off easily. Everyone has an audience for rapid-fire stardom: the latest American Idol, the star of a viral YouTube video, the biggest loser on the "The Biggest Loser."

For example, included in this summer's celebrity death watch was Adam Goldstein, known as DJ AM, who apparently died of a drug overdose on Aug. 28.

He was 36 and a successful nightclub disc jockey, but his fame stemmed more from romances with mainstays of Us Weekly and People magazine such as Nicole Richie.

"Our measure of celebrities is different than before," said Ferrara of The Associated Press. "DJ AM, when you look at his celebrity status, he was a D.J. that hung around certain people, dated certain people, became a celebrity. We probably didn't have that 10 years ago or even five years ago."

With the loss of so many legends at once for baby boomers in particular, facing the prospect of their own deaths was, of course, unavoidable.

"We're up at the plate, not on deck. That's unnerving. It's like they blocked our view of the edge of the cliff, and with them gone, it's all too clear," said Michael Bader, 56, a psychologist in San Francisco.

Jackson was 50, Fawcett was 62, and Swayze was 57. Known best for his breakout success in the 1987 hit "Dirty Dancing," Swayze's celebrity - like that of Fawcett, the 1970s bombshell and star of "Charlie's Angels" who used the news media to publicize her attempt to overcome cancer - seemed reborn through his very public struggle.

"It makes you feel much more vulnerable and that life is a lot more fragile than the statistics are now saying," said Hilary Eaton Pearl, who runs a human resources consulting firm in New York and is in her mid-50s. "It's just another reminder aside from all the little indignities of growing older, of your own age, your own mortality. I think that's why it's been a particularly teary time."

Going by actuarial tables, the boomers, now age 45 to 63, can expect to live to age 83, thanks to modern health care.

More than the fear of death, some experts said, this age group is concerned about its legacy. In a survey last year of 1,000 Americans age 44 to 79 conducted by AARP, 55 percent said they believed they would leave the world worse off than they found it.

The deaths this summer, said Marc Freedman, 51, the author of "Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America," created a sense of both the "expansion and compression of time," of possibility and urgency.

Freedman, the founder of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit group focused on social careers for baby boomers, is working on a book about what he is tentatively calling "Generation E," for encore, as in a second career, typically in the "do-gooder" realm, with people like Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Al Gore as role models for the transition.

"I think this is the first time so many have simultaneously had an awareness of death and the prospect of a whole new act," Freedman said. "Never before have there been so many people who have so much experience and the time left to do something with it."