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Why Boomers Don’t Really Want to Time Travel

Your approach to past, present and future changes with age

By Richard Chin

Cher famously wondered if she could turn back time.

But most people around her age — 68 — don’t seem to want to do that.

According to a national survey released earlier this year by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine on how Americans view future technology, the older you get, the less likely you are to want to have a time machine.

When survey respondents were asked what futuristic inventions they’d like to own, only 3 percent of people 65 and older said they’d want time travel. In comparison, 10 percent or more of people 18 to 49 said they’d like a time machine.

These Pew surveys typically find out what people feel, but not why they feel it.

“I have to say your guess is as good as mine,” said Aaron Smith, Pew senior researcher, on why more time on earth equals less interest in time travel.

Maybe, Smith suggests, after already seeing a longish lifetime of events and inventions and technological progress, mature people don’t feel the need to revisit the past or find out what’s next.

I’d suggest that the older you get, the more likely you are to conclude that right now is the best of all possible times.

Feeling Better As We Get Older

Recent research, for example, has shown that feelings of well-being increase as you get older, and people 50 and over are less likely to have an incidence of major depression than younger cohorts.

Experience teaches us that the good old days maybe weren’t so good.

(MORE: Why Today is Better Than the Past)

Like many of my fellow boomers, I’ll be watching the new season of Downton Abbey next month, but I would never want to go back 100 years even if I could live in an English manor catered to by an army of servants. Lord Grantham lived in a world without antibiotics and modern, pain-free dentistry. I’m not sure I’d want to give those up no matter how wonderful the clothes looked.

To be sure, a time machine would enable me to solve some of histories great mysteries. But those nagging enigmas — who really shot Kennedy, who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, who was Jack the Ripper — seem to mean being on the scene of some pretty awful violence. Not the nicest way to spend your vacation time.

(MORE: How to Discover Yourself By Exploring Your Past)

And even if you could be right there, right then, figuring out how and why those Easter Island heads were erected would require a major time commitment. You’d have to learn the local culture and language and probably have to take part in some long, laborious toil, all without benefit of a Starbucks or an Internet connection.

Yes, I could catch the Gettysburg Address or the Sermon on the Mount. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t understand what was being said in the latter, and we all know what it’s like to go to those big outdoor events with an inadequate supply of portable toilets.

Kitty Hawk? The invention of the telephone? Would it really be so exciting to someone who can book a flight to the other side of the world with a smart phone?


I could try to see what important historical figures were really like. But it’s not like the great men and women of today are seeking my company. I worry, for example, that if I show up on the deck of Horatio Nelson’s flagship, the hero of Trafalgar will say, “Who the hell is he? Throw him overboard.”

Living History Now

The future is a bit daunting, too. I have enough trouble keeping up with the latest phone app. And if dystopia awaits over the horizon, will I spend the rest of my life in today’s world as a crank, warning of our impending enslavement at the hands of intelligent robots? I bet we still won’t have jetpacks.

But on reflection, there is a category of things I would travel back in time to see.

Louis Armstrong died when I was a kid. I never saw him perform in person. That would be worth a time travel trip. I also never saw Elvis or the Beatles or Billie Holiday or Judy Garland. I’d want to catch a concert by each. And see Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in the original production of Camelot.

We know the outcome of any sporting event in history. That would take away much of the pleasure of going to most games in the past. But there are a few amazing athletic performances worth seeing in person, even if you knew what was going to happen: Billy Mills upset victory in the 1964 Olympics. Jesse Owens four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A selfie at Babe Ruth’s “called shot” homer.

Which makes me wonder that maybe I don’t need to go back in time at all. There are great performances and performers today that people in the future will probably wish they could go back to see.

I just need to make an effort to see them while I can.

Richard Chin is a Twin Cities newspaper reporter who has written for publications including the Wall Street Journal, and Stanford Magazine. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and once won the Wisconsin Wife Carrying Championship. Read More
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