Opinion: Barbra Streisand is giving us all a wake-up call

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

Barbra Streisand is that rare breed of megastar who transcends time and fashion. She’s sold over 150 million records and won eight Grammys, two Oscars, four Emmys and a Tony. Her new memoir, “My Name Is Barbra,” is a nearly 1,000-page epic charting her rise from a Brooklyn housing project to a position in 20th-century entertainment rivaled only by Frank Sinatra. Yet in a life defined by overachievement, there’s one area in which the 81-year-old feels she’s conspicuously failed.

Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas
Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas

“I haven’t had much fun in my life, to tell you the truth,” she told the BBC this week. “And I want to have more fun.”

This is the legend who kicked off her singing career by winning a talent contest at a gay bar in Greenwich Village. She enjoys pancakes in bed with her husband James Brolin, and her basement contains an entire street of antique “shops” (minus cash registers) to house her treasures. If Barbra’s not having fun, who on earth is?

For my money, not nearly enough of us. Remember when the Covid-19 lockdowns hit in 2020, and an exuberant swathe of articles predicted that once the dust had settled, we’d welcome in the Roaring 20s 2.0? That December, Yale professor and social epidemiologist Dr. Nicholas Christakis laid out a post-pandemic vision that could see us “relentlessly seek out social interactions,” including “sexual licentiousness,” liberal spending and a “reverse of religiosity.”

I don’t know about you, but on the rare occasions it stops raining long enough to venture outside and take the temperature of the populace, I’m not met with hordes of youths channeling their disillusionment with some 21st-century equivalent of the Charleston.

I see streets lined with posters protesting a laundry list of appalling global conflicts, trains and buses rammed with passengers frenetically scanning their phones and bars crammed with over-30s because no one younger can afford a drink. Depression rates are soaringsexual activity is on the decline and stressed, unhappy workers are mentally checking out. The mood is dark, and the overwhelming majority, who aren’t multimillionaire octogenarians, face it with a distinct financial handicap.

Where are we going wrong? The ambient gaiety a century ago was sufficient to label an entire decade after it, despite all manner of horrors. The year 1920 dawned amid a major recession. World War I — not to mention the Spanish flu pandemic — had left deep physical and psychological scars, and racism had such a grip on major parts of the United States that hooded Klansmen marched through Washington in 1925.

But, for some people at least, it seems the weight of tragedy only reinforced the feeling that life and its fleeting pleasures ought to be seized with greater urgency. America’s youth kicked up its heels, embraced the intoxicating rhythms of the Jazz Age and swigged bootlegged gin. The dance craze that swept Britain was so intense that it prompted London’s Piccadilly Hotel to ban the Charleston out of moral panic. Now though, faced with comparably daunting socioeconomic and political convulsions, we appear to be buckling. Why?

There’s one obvious difference. In 1920, the median age of an American was 25.3. In 2020, it was 38.8 and in 2022, it was 38.9. The demographic of US adults aged 65 and older grew nearly five times faster than the population as a whole between 1920 and 2020. Fun doesn’t (and shouldn’t) belong only to the young. But older populations tend to come with hefty financial and social pressures.

They demand more of health care systems, and of younger family members who must step up when those fall short. Older people tend to live in homes that are bigger than they need squeezing out younger families, and raise the cost of housing overall. This is undoubtedly challenging. I don’t think it wholly accounts for our fun drought, though.

While money and space can certainly be conducive to amusement, as Streisand demonstrates, they’re not the magic sauce. I think the difference is that we, and the world, feel more fragile than we ever have before. After World War I, there was a widespread belief that such a bloody conflict could never be sanctioned again. That faith has long since been lost.

As if that isn’t downer enough, arguably the greatest challenge facing us is the climate crisis, which, by its very nature, quashes any potential buoyancy. It’s a forever problem, one we know we’ll be dealing with for the rest of our lives. Managing it necessitates constant incremental efforts (minimizing waste, cutting down travel), rather than intense but transient demonstrations of courage or discipline.

This, plus the more individualized stressors of work, mental illness and the rest, requires stamina to cope. Blowing off steam 1920s-style feels harder to legitimize when we’re all acutely aware of the adverse effects of booze, cigarettes and under-sleeping. Instead, the 21st-century obsession is self-care. And while no one’s arguing the benefits of hydration and a solid eight hours, neither offers the high of a night spent dancing with abandon.

So, is all hope lost? Should we resign ourselves to lives bereft of carefree joy? I think not. I say we take a leaf out of Streisand’s gigantic book and make a conscious effort to inject some old-fashioned fun into our lives. This needn’t translate to being soused 24/7, but there’s no harm in anyone of any age upending their carefully polished routine once in a while if a tantalizing opportunity arises. And according to Christakis’ prediction, the Roaring 2020s aren’t expected to kick off properly until 2024. Here’s looking at you, January.

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