Isaac Newton said that if he’d seen further than others it was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. My generation is not populated by giants. We’re simply people who mostly worked our butts off and never forgot what we and our parents believed was the fundamental promise of America….”
by charles d. phillips
It’s happened. I’m well on my way to old fartdom. Evidence of this comes in many forms. First, there’s my belief that most current music is crap. Okay, John Mayer’s live nine and one-half minute version of Gravity is righteous, but the AM/FM single sucks. Most of the other stuff is new and mediocre or a rip-off – witness Kid Rock’s theft of Warren Zevon’s Werewolf of London (hint: Wake up! It’s not an ‘omage. It’s a finger in the eye.) Second, I think Thriller was way cool. But, come on! Michael Jackson was just a really talented guy who was completely confused about sexuality, childhood, and plastic surgery. Also, in reality, the music died either in an airplane accident (that’s Buddy Holly for you 12 year-olds) or because the real King washed down too many fried-banana-and-peanut-butter sandwiches with Percodan and bourbon. Third, I know there was something else, but I’m getting old, and I forget what it is.
Also, in a more concrete sense, barring untoward events like an H1N1 flu epidemic or the discovery that watching pornography causes pancreatic cancer, I’ll be part of that group of 65+ year old citizens who by 2030 will constitute 20 percent of our nation’s population. You get on an elevator with four people in 2031. There’s a good chance you’ll be sharing it with at least one guy with a bad headache who’s heading home before the Viagra really hits or someone hoping their Depends is as good as the manufacturer’s claim. Projections of the costs of social support and health care for me and my aging contemporaries send shudders or cold chills-which seem like pretty much the same thing to me-down the backs of policy makers and taxpayers alike.
The facts are now so familiar that most of us want to barf when someone brings them up again. Those 80 or older comprise one of the fastest growing segments of our population, small but fast-growing. Those citizens who require the most health care are the elderly, especially those over 80. Also, there are not enough physicians and other health care workers to provide the care we Boomers will need. The number of younger workers paying into the Social Security system will soon be dwarfed by the number of aging Baby Boomers claiming benefits. Medicare costs will increase. Medicaid costs will increase. Charts reflecting estimated government spending on aging Boomers over the next few decades resemble the take-off trajectory of a Boeing 767. For a number of expensive social programs, we are talking about (in technical terms) a whole lot of “out-go” and not too much “in-go.”
All of us who contribute to that aging boomers bloc, the author of a recent Newsweek essay (economist swine) concluded, will be part of the burden of the elderly on our society. Like most economists, he isn’t creative enough to have made up a term like “burden” himself. He just stole it and used it for his own twisted “Pareto-esque” purposes.
Every time I consider this looming “crisis,” I can’t help but think about my generation’s past. In all honesty, we’re not a bunch of folks (i.e., a generation) who are accustomed to being considered a burden. The “burden” generation now responsible for those charming TV ads about enlarging prostates, frequent urination, constipation remedies, and calcium supplements has been a “boom” generation for its entire existence.
When my generation reached school age, expenditures on public education skyrocketed. Some analysts estimate that the percent of the gross domestic product (that’s the GDP policy nerds talk about) spent on education increased by roughly 100%, and nobody really bitched. Higher education had to expand when we reached college age. The raft of junior colleges, technical schools, and public universities standing ready today to teach our grandchildren English, Urdu, mathematics, cosmetology, or air conditioning repair is a product of that expansion.
Then, the throngs of the burdensome entered the workforce. The economy expanded dramatically; our consumption built entirely new industries. My generation helped pay for much of the Cold War, spending billion after billion so our presidents could compare nuclear johnsons with the Soviet Union’s premier’s and preparing for the hot war that never occurred. We spent too much of our treasure and too much of our blood supporting a war in Southeast Asia with a country that became a cool destination for American tourists a few decades later. We invested heavily in our children’s education, and America became a world leader in technology and development.
At each stage of my generation’s maturation, changes were required in how our society, especially government, allocated its resources. When my generation needed education or jobs, or paid generously for whatever, and I do mean whatever policy-makers thought worthwhile, we weren’t considered a burden. Yet, as my generation rolls toward retirement; when nearly all of us will need higher levels of medical care and social services, then we foment a crisis and are a “burden.”
Isaac Newton said that if he’d seen further than others it was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. My generation is not populated by giants. We’re simply people who mostly worked our butts off and never forgot what we and our parents believed was the fundamental promise of America: If you bust your ass, then your kids will do better than you did. My grandfather was a blacksmith, then an auto mechanic. My grandmother worked in one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s shipyard nurseries in WWII, then opened a daycare when my grandfather became too ill to work. My father was a postman, and my mother became a bookkeeper so they could pay for my asthma medication. I’m a university professor with three post-baccalaureate degrees.
I’m where I am today because I stood on the tired, proud shoulders of the men and women in my family. This country is where it is today, discounting the disaster wrought by the “Mistake from Midland,” because of an entire generation like me. We did well and America is now the richest, most powerful nation in the world. Those who seek and hopefully find success in this nation in the future will be standing on the shoulders of boomers-or burdens-like me.
To deal with my generation’s needs, things must change. But changes in social policy due to population dynamics aren’t a new phenomenon in this land. America changed from a rural to an urbanized society as it transformed itself into an industrial giant. We’ve now moved from heavy industry to a lighter industry and service economy. Barack Obama is talking about a green economy. America is constantly changing how social resources are allocated. Social Security was a major change. Medicare and Medicaid were major changes. Voting rights for African-Americans was a serious change. Global warming and moving away from a petroleum-based economy will demand major changes.
Throughout what sociologists lovingly call our “life-course,” my generation has always required change, and our country is usually better for it. We boomers placed extraordinary demands on the education system, and the education system that now serves our grandchildren is demonstrably better for that challenge. So now my friends and I will generate change in social policy over the next few decades. We will almost certainly demand far-reaching changes in how we organize health care in this nation. After we do, I wager that the health care our children and grandchildren receive will be better because of those changes.
Over the next few decades those of my age may well ask a great deal of this country. I see absolutely no shame in this. My generation, like others before us, has given a great deal to this nation. Old age is neither a choice nor an illness. It just is. Caring for frail elders is as much a part of social responsibility as educating the young. Congress meets every year for a reason. Things change, and social policy has to change as well. The aging of our society is just another of those changes to which our society can, and will, respond.
Besides, try not to forget we’re your family. I’m still paying for my grandson’s auto insurance, and I’m buying “onesies” for my great-grandson. So, try not to act like assholes when we Boomers have no choice but to start asking you for things. Instead, just remember the way you’ve asked us for things all your lives. Then remember how we’ve responded.
(photos: keith moul)
Charles D. Phillips is a native Texan and a public health professional who lives and teaches in College Station, Texas. His short fiction has been nominated for StorySouth’s 2009 Million Writer Award, The Pushcart Prize, 2009 and for inclusion in The Best of the Web, 2009. More from Charles D. Phillips can be found in the Vault of Smoke.