Why was 2016 was the last year on earth of so many famous people? From
international icons like David Bowie and Prince to British favourites like
Victoria Wood and Terry Wogan, it seemed as though every other week brought
news of another star passing away. As if to underline the point, the year ended
with a flurry of bad celebrity news: the death first of George Michael, then of
Carrie Fisher, who achieved world-wide fame as Princess Leia in Star Wars,
and her mother Debbie Reynolds, the last of the great names from Hollywood’s
What was going on? Was it a run of bad luck for famous people? Or was
something else at work? I think you could argue that it wasn’t bad luck, but
something completely natural. It was the bust of the baby boom, that famous
rise in the birth-rate that began after the Second World War. One thing is
always inevitable after someone is born: that at some future time they will
die. In rich countries like Britain and America, it’s usually about seventy or eighty
years later. Baby-boomers are now entering that stage of their lives, whether
they’re famous or not.
And the famous ones, like David Bowie, owed their success to the
non-famous ones. The baby-boomers became young adults and teenagers during the
1960s and ’70s. It was their youthful enthusiasm and quest for excitement that
powered so much cultural change and lifted so many new musicians and actors to
success. Marc Bolan of T-Rex became a superstar that way and, like Bowie, he
might have been one of the famous names to pass away in 2016. But he’d died in
1977 in a car-crash. That wasn’t natural: he had bad luck, like John Lennon of
the Beatles, who was assassinated in 1980 by a mentally disturbed fan.
Otherwise Bolan and Lennon would very likely have travelled with the rest of
the baby-boom to the end of the century and beyond.
David Bowie should perhaps have lived longer too, but he’d been a heavy
user of drugs earlier in his life. That’s not a route to good health and
improved life-expectancy. Drugs were part of baby-boomers’ search for
excitement and new experiences, which means that many of them are going to pass
away before their natural time. The drug-user George Michael certainly did – he
was only fifty-three when the news of his death stunned his millions of fans.
He was born a bit too late to be part of the baby-boom, so you could say that
his passing wasn’t part of a wider phenomenon.
Debbie Reynolds was the opposite to George Michael: she was born too
early to be a baby-boomer. But her daughter Carrie Fisher was part of that
post-war generation – and she was a drug-user like David Bowie. It’s easy to
think of other drug-using stars who might have left us in 2016: Keith Richards
of the Rolling Stones is an obvious example. Then again, he’s looked at death’s
door for decades, so he’s had a lot of practice at disappointing the Grim
Reaper. He might surprise us all and outlive the fitness fanatic Mick Jagger.
Sooner or later, however, both Mick and Keith will go to the "Great
Gig in the Sky". That’s the title of a song by Pink Floyd, another
big-name band from the 1960s who are now much closer to their 100th birthday
than to their first. They were part of the wave of stars launched by the baby-boom
and they will also be part of the baby-bust. 2016 might have seemed an unusual
year, but it’s likely that it won’t seem unusual for long.