Fred Branfman on ‘The Making of an Elder Culture’
Posted on Nov 27, 2009
Roszak’s hopes for meeting people’s needs through “voluntary simplicity” and legislated redistribution of wealth rest on three premises:
1. That boomers will fight for their benefits. “In the 1960s, unruliness was located among the young. But as mature boomers claim their entitlements, they will once again be in a position to grow unruly. We may be in sight of a surprising display of elder insurgency,” he writes.
2. That non-seniors, unwilling to let their parents have lives that are shorter than medical science permits, will support their entitlements. “Can we imagine some political leader taking the position that people are living too long?” Roszak says. He also hopes that younger people will realize that what they do for their parents today will be done for them tomorrow.
3. That boomers, rather than behaving as self-interested “greedy geezers,” will renew their youthful values and fight for rights for everyone. “I have been arguing that the senior dominance that lies ahead of us will shift values throughout the industrial societies in ways that will encourage populations as a whole to demand the same entitlements that the elders of society receive,” he says.
The Making of an Elder Culture: Reflections on the Future of America’s Most Audacious Generation
By Theodore Roszak
New Society Publishers, 320 pages
This point is key because it seems obvious that an economically strained workforce will have at best mixed feelings about supporting benefits for seniors no matter how much the workers love their parents or fear their own senior years. (He does not address the thorny question of how many overstretched adult children will, consciously or unconsciously, hope for their parents’ passing so as to gain an inheritance or home.) And conservatives have already begun to develop a “Youth Strategy,” similar to the right’s 1960s “Southern Strategy,” that could well limit seniors’ life-support systems.
Boomers may thus well need to build an intergenerational movement fighting for entitlements for everyone—universal single-payer health care, vastly extended unemployment insurance, income support for those who cannot survive on their own—to achieve both their outer needs and inner ideals.
For this to happen, Roszak argues, elders will need to develop a new consciousness. He quotes Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn: “We must act as the elders of the tribe, looking out for the best interests of the future and preserving the precious compact between the generations.”
He unfortunately does not explore the irony of this call, given that much of their psychological energy in the ’60s derived from boomers feeling betrayed by their own elders—particularly by being drafted into an Indochina war that massively slaughtered innocents. The “generation gap” was a major hallmark of the ’60s, featuring rifts between leaders and students, parents and children, and even an “Old” and “New” Left. Can boomers without elder role models of their own now serve as wise elders to their kids and grandkids? It will be redemptive if they can, but the question is clearly still open.
In the end, Roszak’s hope that aging can transform the individual and his hope that it can transform society merge. Only as baby boomers renew the idealism of their youth, he argues, will they be able to create the materially poorer but spiritually richer America needed to keep seniors alive and younger generations intact.
It is far too early to say whether boomers could succeed even if they tried, however, because our current times have no historical parallel. America has faced economic hard times before, but never in a “late-capitalist” phase featuring huge and unpayable debts, an unaffordable war machine, a burgeoning senior population and biospheric crises which beggar the imagination.
Unprecedented problems produce unprecedented resolutions. It is as easy to imagine an Orwellian future in which the rich and powerful rely on police-state measures to protect their way of life as it is to picture one marked by democracy, decency and peace.
All we can really know now is that by the time the last boomer turns 65 in 2030 America will have changed profoundly in ways we cannot presently imagine.
And one more thing.
If a socially just and democratic America that has helped preserve the biosphere its young will need for life itself does emerge, it will be largely because baby boomers did rise to the challenges of their time and redeem the dreams of their youth.
Countercultural boomers may not ride again. But only if they do, allying with their young, are they likely to see an America that they will wish to pass on to those who will follow them.
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