“Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent.” Psalms 71:9 ESV
“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” Leviticus 19:32 ESV
In Christopher Buckley’s 2007 novel Boomsday, a charismatic 20-something with a generational ax to grind and an ambitious politician pair up to campaign for government-sanctioned suicide of the “resource hogging” Baby Boomer generation. The en masse retirement of Boomers threatens to sabotage the financial future of America’s working-age citizens. Cast in the same take-no-prisoners, satirical vein as his novel-turned-blockbuster hit Thank You For Smoking, Boomsday addresses the very real, very imminent financial and demographic crisis facing America.
Writing for Real Clear Politics in 2007, columnist Robert Samuelson explained why Boomsday strikes such a chord with Boomers and Millennials alike:
“Buckley’s comic tale revolves around two truths usually buried in our dreary budget debates. First, a generational backlash is inevitable. It may not come as attacks on sunbathing retirees, but the idea that younger workers will meekly bear the huge tax increases needed to pay all boomers’ promised benefits is delusional. The increases are too steep, and too many boomers – fairly wealthy and healthy – will seem undeserving.”
It’s certainly difficult to muster much sympathy for the retirement concerns of the Boomers with visions of “sunbathing retirees” dancing in our heads, but it’s worth considering the broader question of how society’s changing view of the elderly throughout the years has contributed to this Great Divide between generations.
There was a time, believe it or not, when the question of finding someone to support the needs of the elderly in their twilight years of life wasn’t a question at all, but a duty embraced by family and community. Before the advent of the modern welfare state (and the corresponding shift from an extended family to a nuclear family model as the social norm), it was understood that aging relatives would be cared for by family, often with the support of community associations like churches or civic groups. The elderly were not viewed as “burdens” or “resource hogs,” but rather as venerated members of the family – depositories of great wisdom to whom the highest respect and honor were owed. Thus, the extra work required to support these elderly relatives was not considered extraordinary, unjust or unfair.
Fast forward to the modern day, and it’s clear that our social attitudes about the elderly, even our own family members, has changed dramatically. As mentioned earlier, various social, cultural and technological developments over the last century have contributed to the abandonment of the extended family in favor of a focus on the nuclear. Children rarely find themselves living in the same town as their parents and siblings, and once they start their own families, ties to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are limited by time and distance. In an era of government entitlements, chief of which are Medicare and Social Security, there is no longer an emergent need for family to stick together in order to provide crucial material support for one another in times of need. Most elderly people today live in their own homes, separated from their loved ones by hundreds of miles. If Granny slips and falls in her bathtub or her kitchen, chances are it will be the friendly folks at Life Alert – not her own flesh and blood – who will come to her rescue. One too many accidents, and Granny’s Medicare or Medicaid will pay to place her in a nursing home.
On top of the fact that our society has shifted the “burden” of eldercare from the family to the state, our culture has also changed the way we think about old age. With each passing decade America has become more and more obsessed with youth and more and more terrified of death. We spend billions of dollars a year on products and procedures guaranteed to roll back the clock, often at the expense of other health issues and often with the help of a credit card. It’s no surprise, then, that we are less inclined to want to care for our aging relatives, who would otherwise remind us daily that no amount of money spent in pursuit of a youthful appearance can prevent the inevitable: In the end, no one gets out alive.
America’s obsession with youth has another ugly consequence: an increasingly utilitarian attitude about life in general. We have come to define the net worth of individuals solely in economic terms: What do we produce? What can we afford to consume? Do our assets exceed our liabilities? Unfortunately, the costs – both financial and personal – of caring for an elderly relative don’t contribute much to the bottom line. It’s a burden we have become unwilling to bear.
But bear the burden we will, whether we like it or not. Without a robust family-centered culture to care for America’s elderly, the State will continue to expand its role in this arena. And as the worker-to-retiree ratio continues to shrink, Uncle Sam will be forced to take more of our money to finance the rising costs of health care and other benefits for the elderly in America. There’s no shortage of blame to go around for this situation, and as America continues to become a mass-geriatric society its doubtful that we can avoid the coming crisis that is “boomsday.”
The only remaining hope is that we as a society can learn from our mistakes, move away from our radical individualistic, self-centered mindset, and rediscover the great blessings – and great responsibilities – of true family.