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)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group