THE YOUNG AND THE OLD

Lester Thurow, the highly intelligent and perceptive economist from MIT, has recently published a book titled, The Future Of Capitalism. It raises a number of interesting and provocative questions. Among them is the issue of America's young supporting the elderly through the mechanism of social security. Thurow's statistics quantified annecdotal data I had chanced on in newspapers and the television. They were rather sobering, I thought, as I was reading the book carefully one Tuesday evening.

At 9pm, I put down the book and got ready to go out. Some of my young Para-rescue Jumper friends from the Patrick Air Force Base gym had invited me to a social function at the Purple Porpoise, a beachside bar ten miles south of the base. I knew five or six of the P J's, as they like to be called. They were young, physically active types, and reminded me of my teammates forty years ago as a U.S. Navy frogman. A couple of beers, some chicken wings, and a little conversation about diving would be welcome.

I'd been to the bar several times before and knew it was casual, cheerful, and friendly, with lots of Florida sea motif decorations hanging from the walls. As I walked through the doors, I noted the place was filled with people. Looking through the crowd, I heard my name and found Eric at a table with six people and 25 small cups of beer sitting in the center. He and his friends also worked out at the gym and were attached to Patrick as Air Force personnel.

Joining the group, I asked what was the reason for the huge crowd. Eric smiled. "Tuesday nights is quarter beer, quarter oysters, and quarter wings," he said. There were over 150 people in the place. All looked young and happy. The mating ritual that I had long forgotten took on its odd forms, with conversations, smiles, hugs, and whatever chemistry has and always will attract boys and girls to each other. I'd seen most of the people at our table in the gym, male and female, and they seemed to be good friends. Eric good-naturedly refused my offer to pay anything for the drinks, so all I had to do was sip beer and talk with each of them, find out where they'd come from, and what they were doing in the Air Force. In an hour and a half I'd discovered they were all nice, rather clean-cut kids out to have a good time and see the world before they settled down to whatever life had in store for them. Tony, Lance, and Chad, my Para-rescue Jumper friends, and Ted, Kim, Audrey, and another girl named TK came by to join the party. Being young seems to guarantee having a sparkle and pleasant attitude. It should, since none of them had any of the aches and physical hindrances to which my older peers constantly refer. I'd forgotten what a mellow time of life the twenties were, and greatly enjoyed talking with my young companions. They were gracious and friendly, with engaging smiles, and full of good humor. It was fun to be among them and join in their happiness. No-one got drunk or behaved badly; they were kids all having a good time on what my wife and I would spend for dinner at a reasonable restaurant.

At 11pm, after a couple more beers than I'd intended, I drove home, checked my E Mail, and again picked up Thurow's book. By coincidence, the chapter I was reading dealt with the transfer of income from America's impoverished young to its affluent old. Thurow had some interesting points. First, the change In wealth of elderly people during the last quarter of a century has been quite remarkable. According to Thurow, in 1970, the highest percentage of any group in poverty was the elderly. When this book was published in 1995, the elderly had the lowest percentage in poverty of any group. In the 60s, the average 70 year old man was spending only 60% as much as the average 30 year old. Today, he is spending 20% more. A thumbnail summary shows the net worth of those between 65 and 74 years of age is $ 222,000 versus $66,000 for those between 35 and 44. Much of that may be in paid-off housing rather than free and clear assets, but it is an unambiguous indicator of financial health. Though there are many unfortunate exceptions, the elderly as a group are doing very well.

Further, Thurow emphasized that the relative abundance of labor, the global nature of our economy, and the downsizing of Fortune 500 companies have combined to fundamentally change the nature of employment. One-company careers are mostly a thing of the past, and our young will not have the job stability my generation enjoyed. Nor will they look forward to the social security benefits the elderly have today. For each present retiree, nearly five workers are employed and pay the benefits which he or she receives. In thirty years, the ratio will decrease to less than three workers for every retiree.

These economic statistics coldly presented an ominous future for the young. But it was one thing to read them and give quiet thanks for being in the favorable part of the curve. It was quite another to put names to that data, and think of Ted, Tony, Lance, Kim, TK, Chad, Audrey and Eric eventually landing on the unfavorable part of it. A man hates to ride on the backs of willing, decent people when he is still capable of standing on his two feet and pulling his own load.

What we can do about it is a puzzle, but it's time to begin serious reflection. With no foreign enemies, we certainly don't want to end up doing battle with our own young. We are headed that way. Two can't marry, buy a house, furnish it, and raise and educate children while living on quarter beer, quarter wings, and quarter oysters in order to guarantee the good life for their elders. Sooner or later, that basic fact is going to become known, and I no longer will be welcome at the Purple Porpoise.


Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)