Out with the Old

The problem of the old and their place in society must have begun fifty years after God created Adam and Eve. Mankind has not solved it yet. Now, what is the meaning of that cryptic opening? Bear with me for a few paragraphs.

America, as it exists today, is far different than the place I knew as a boy more than half a century ago. In less than three generations, its values, its faith in and observance of religion, the institution of marriage, the people who raise our young and the way they do it, its schools, and the status of and economic worth of its old have fundamentally been altered. None of these areas has changed as radically as the lives older people lead. My broad if inexplicit definition of the term old includes people who have retired, as well as those who would like to retire but are forced to work to supplement their meager incomes.

Let me make it clear that old is not an age; it is a condition. Two contradictory factors have worked in opposition to affect America's old and modify their situation. The first is a government sponsored remedy for aged poverty that began innocently with legislation called OAB, old age benefits, in the 1930s. Intended to help prevent the pitiful circumstances in which older men and, particularly, older widows found themselves, it evolved into Social Security. From its modest base, this income provision for the elderly has provided stabilizing monthly payments for tens of millions of living, but no longer economically productive, people who have reached the age of at least 62.

The second is the recent, all-encompassing, globally competitive aspect of business, which has become truly international. U.S corporations, pressured by the myopic, 90 day bottom-line profit goals of America's institutional stock market fund managers, analysts, and stockholders, have reacted more quickly than their European or Asian counterparts. Among the most effective ways they have responded to increase profits is to decrease expenses by sacking senior, higher paid middle managers. I used the term senior, not old, advisedly, since senior includes people with 15 or 20 years service who may be only in their 40s. The majority of them are in their 50s. When these people lose jobs, few of them can afford to retire, and it is difficult for them to find a comparable job at that age.

The latter, highly pervasive trend has managed to put a lot of aging people in the unemployment line. The older ones have the option of obtaining badly needed support in the form of social security payments. Unfortunately, those in their late 40s and early, mid, and late 50s can rely only on 26 weeks of unemployment compensation. After that, they're on their own. This schism has segmented our aging population into an older group with a small but guaranteed income and minimal stress, and a younger group with high anxiety and little present hope. The latter must find a way to bridge the time from now until they qualify for social security. If the Congress and our President wonder why public opinion polls continually measure high percentages of discontent and insecurity among Americans, they had better examine the journey most citizens know awaits them from middle to old age. Other than for municipal, state and federal government workers, job security no longer exists in this country.

At the other extreme, young workers realize the same social benefits to which they now contribute for the old will not be available for them at their retirement. Resentment comes naturally, and is likely to get worse as the ratio of active workers to each retiree diminishes in a population skewed by baby boomers. My generation, born in the early thirties, slipped through without fighting in WWII and had a relatively easy time staying employed until we neared 60. We were favored by a window of opportunity that lasted for twenty years until the rest of the world recovered from the destructive effects of WWII.

The global economic playing field has been leveled, and America's social fabric is being ripped apart by the politics of three diverse groups. On one hand, there are the old who cannot find meaningful employment. Many of them work at WalMart in clerical capacities, others at McDonald's and similar fast food establishments. I, at 64, am no spring chicken. Yesterday I saw a sweet old lady, who was at least ten years my senior, sweeping the floor of a Burger King restaurant. I am glad she was still able to work, but my feelings at seeing her were a mixture of guilt that she still had to earn a living and anger at a society that permitted her to do so. The second group is the ignorant young who have little present, a misspent past, and no future. Their future is bleak, and they know it. The third group is composed of selfish young professional and middle-aged Americans who have an education, good-paying jobs, and are looking for tax reductions that will enable them to spend a greater portion of their incomes. They largely feel they have earned their preeminence through hard work and their own efforts, and are unconcerned about large numbers of people who don't share such material wealth. The outlooks from all three groups are mutually incompatible.

Where it all will end appears today to be little better than a crap shoot. It seems to me that if we fail to realize everyone is in the same lifeboat, and we don't form compromise solutions, most of us may be in for a long swim.


Sam Orr

World Traveler

and Philanthrope

(Location Unknown)