Last year, according to some study that was conducted in Australia, the world hit peak beard. This apparently meant that any romantic advantage that growing a beard afforded the grower would now be diminished by the beard’s ubiquity. Biologically speaking, people are drawn to uniqueness (at least to a certain degree — Carrot Top looks unique, but whether that helps him procreate is debatable), and now, suddenly, beards are no longer unique. The story was a trifle — as unnecessary as a recap of The Big Bang Theory — but it allowed people to gently make fun of hipsters (a term that is as meaningless these days as “gourmet,” or “cult”), so it was reported on pretty much everywhere. And yet, people are still growing beards. Just look at pictures of David Letterman from last week.
While Letterman’s beard is as robust as any lumber-sexual (a term I hesitate to use, since my disdain for “clever” portmanteaus is on the record), it’s not really a hipster beard. This is because a) the word hipster, if it means anything at all, is really just a lazy way for old people to talk about young people — especially young people they don’t understand — and Letterman isn’t exactly young. And b) Letterman’s beard represents another archetype of facial hair: the Retirement Beard.
The Retirement Beard has a long and glorious tradition. Al Gore grew one after he lost the 2000 election. Jon Stewart is sporting one now. And Stephen Colbert, somewhat poetically, shaved his just before taking over Letterman’s show. Whenever a televised man retreats from the spotlight, the first thing he does is throw away his razor. To the untrained eye, it can seem like giving up, the follicular equivalent of breaking out sweat pants and working on the personalized, butt-shaped groove in one’s couch. But that’s not it at all. They grow their grey bushes because they’ve earned them, and there’s nobody that can stop them.
This highlights the problem with young people and their beards. Or maybe it’s that their beards represent the problem with young people. Men of a certain age are always looking for the perfect symbol of Millenial Entitlement. Most will point to Twitter, or smartphones generally, or student debt, or the fact that they opt to live at home until the perfect high paying, fame-providing job comes along. But, what they should really point to is their facial hair. Young people are growing beards that they haven’t earned. It’s the same reason hippies were so unnerving to those in power. At a certain level, we all understand that any deviation from the grooming status quo is only acceptable if it’s deserved. Ability is not the same as permission, or at least it shouldn’t be.
You earn a beard by retiring—especially after a successful career. You earn a beard by making the playoffs. You earn a beard by proving yourself against the wiles of nature. Or, your religion tells you to grow one, in which case you get a pass. Other than that, gentlemen, be content with stubble. You’re not worthy of more than that just yet.