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The New Longevity

Posted on Nov 19, 2008

By Ellen Goodman

    Did you miss this in the post-election news? Sen. Robert Byrd, 91, announced that he will give up the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee to Sen. Daniel Inouye, 84. The torch has passed to a new generation.

    I don’t say this snidely, although I was charmed at Inouye’s hope that he was “sufficiently prepared to succeed my mentor.” The rite of passage reminded me a little bit of Prince Charles, who just turned 60 as king-in-waiting. Waiting, that is, for his 82-year-old mother to pass the crown.

    But I say it, rather, because this year, the air has been filled with talk of generational change. Ted Kennedy, the ailing elder of Democratic politics, set the tone when he took his brother’s torch and passed it verbally to Barack Obama. Since then, torches have illuminated the conversation.

    In 1961, the transition from 70-year-old Ike to 43-year-old JFK symbolized the arrival of the postwar, post-Depression New Frontier. Now the election of Obama is alternately described as the arrival of the Twitter age, the Jon Stewart era, or the ascendancy of the post-racial and post-partisan generation.

    Of course, Obama took that mantle of change on his own shoulders last year when he addressed his civil rights elders at the 42nd anniversary of the Selma march. Expressing gratitude to the “Moses generation,” he identified himself as part of the “Joshua generation.” If Moses led the people through the desert years, Joshua was anointed to lead them into the promised land. Obama both praised and put the “Moses generation” in its place: history.

    Generational change was not without its tension this year. In the black community, Jesse Jackson bristled at his minor role. The man who had stood with Martin Luther King Jr. and won more than a dozen presidential primaries was heard on an open mike slamming the new kid on his turf. In turn, 67-year-old Jesse Sr. was upbraided by his 42-year-old son, Jesse Jr., for his “ugly rhetoric.” Yet on election night, one of the most emotional images was of the tears trailing down the senior Jackson’s face.

    There was generational tension as well among women during the primary when many second-wave feminist mothers supporting Hillary Clinton split with daughters supporting Obama. Mothers felt daughters had “sold out.” Daughters bristled at mothers patronizing or, should I say, matronizing them. It was, perversely, their joint opposition to Sarah Palin that healed this rift.

    Still, it does seem odd that the imagery of generational change would be in the forefront right now when the most profound social change may be from something else: longevity.

    When the torch was passed to JFK, the average life expectancy was 74. As Obama becomes president, it is 78. Today, there are 16 million Americans in their 70s, 9 million in their 80s.

    We are not just living longer, but also healthier. Age itself is undergoing a vast transition like those magazine covers that boast: 60 is the new 50 or even the new 40. Twenty years ago, one in 10 seniors worked; now it’s one in six. About 70 percent of boomers expect to work after 65. Even before the economic meltdown, older workers were postponing retirement. At 55 and 65, many are thinking more about renewing than retiring.

    Indeed in the real world of politics, the torch of vice president has been passed to Joe Biden, age 66. Hillary Clinton is being considered as the new secretary of state at age 61. In the Senate, the average age is 62 and there are three times as many senators in their 70s as in their 40s.

    There are, to be sure, still fault lines along the old generational borders. Aging baby boomers are blamed if they stay at work, blocking access to the next rung up the ladder. Boomers are also blamed if they retire, devouring the incomes of their children, who are paying for Medicare and Social Security.

    But it seems to me that one of the great challenges of our time is not going to be passing or wresting torches. It will be easing these generational struggles. We will need older Americans—is Joe Biden their mentor?—who can elevate and work for younger leaders without feeling dissed or threatened. We’ll need younger people to accept elders as their experienced peers. We’ll need an economy and psychology that accommodate the new longevity.

    As for the Joshua generation? Have we forgotten that Moses lived to be 120? 
    Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)
    © 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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By Maani, November 23, 2008 at 8:50 pm Link to this comment


There is a very easy way to prevent entrenchment, corruption, etc. without term limits: it is called “voting.”  If people stopped voting for those entrenched politicians who are either corrupt or not serving their constituencies well (or both), then we would not need term limits.

BTW, the NYT pointed out that other day that the combined ages of Stevens (out by election), Dingell (removed from his committee) and Byrd (resigned from his committee) is gerater than the age of the United States.  Scary.


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By Naz, November 22, 2008 at 12:53 am Link to this comment

I believe that the idea was, at the beginning, for people to take time away from their private lives to “serve” their country in Congress for a term or two and return to the private sector to continue their lives. “Serving” and making a “career” out of being a Congressperson are two completely different endeavors. Personally, I believe that Washington, D.C. has become unethical, immoral, and the seat of greed in America because people are allowed to stay there far too long for the country’s well being. Stevens is a perfect example, but notice that his cronies gave him a standing ovation. It’s simply disgraceful.

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By dick, November 21, 2008 at 1:01 pm Link to this comment
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These two guys are the best exhibits for one-term limits for all elected federal office holders. Pick a nymber for the length of the term- 5 years seems reasonable to me. Much corruption,  lobbying, pork,etc would be eliminated by a single term.

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By nrobi, November 20, 2008 at 6:52 pm Link to this comment

In the grand scheme of things, the older generation can and must make room for the younger generation.
Yet now our way of life and the manner to which we have become accustomed is rapidly declining and the people who have lived the longest are the ones with the money.
Of course there are inequities in the system, otherwise this would be a utopia, one cannot expect of this style of government true justice in all forms.
We are living in a democratic republic, which form, is a representative style that hands power to a privileged few and withholds power from the people.
All this in the face of the founding documents that state that power is derived from the governed and given to those who represent the interests of the people.
As our nation ages, we will see generational shifts in all parts of society, in government, in the work place, if there are any left after the economic debacle about to happen, and within the power structure of our nation. This generational shift, will inevitably lead to problems with the older generation not wanting to give up the power they have accumulated through either hard work or privilege.
Living longer isn’t necessarily a good thing, one must also have the quality of life to go along with age. Economically, we are in the worst disaster that can be imagined, $485 Trillion dollars in derivative market paper is outstanding and must be redeemed through the proper channels. No country in the world, neither the worlds countries combined have that much money, to cover the debts that were incurred by the speculative banks. Should these exotic and fake instruments, ever come to the fore, we the people will suffer, even more than the wealthy.
We must take a stand now against the speculative and robber barons of Wall Street and demand that our government shut down once and for all the Wall Street Thugs and their avaricious and greedy ways.
It will be those who have invested in the markets, the older generation who will pay the price for the markets decline and global economic crisis. That means they will have to work past the age that they wished to retire for they will not have the funds to maintain a certain or any lifestyle that will allow them to retire.
Generational shifts aside the older worker will be in the workforce for much longer than they thought.
Robert Byrd, D. W.Va, is one such example, although aged, he still retains some of the faculties that have made him the oldest person in the Senate. We must somehow, give way to the younger generation and trust that they will have answers to our problems.

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By RvW, November 20, 2008 at 10:47 am Link to this comment
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I think there are a few problems with the new longevity theory.  True, many people are living longer, though their quality of life may not be that great, being only able to last longer than people used to with a variety of chronic illnesses.  And there is a class angle to longer lives, poorer people continue to die a lot earlier.  And as the recession bites harder, will employers,the few still hiring, really want to hire a lot of oldsters, when there are swarms of younger workers available?

Best regards, RvW

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