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2016: Why so mean?

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 golden age.

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.