Who says the old are conservative?

Via the Ageism blog of the International Longevity Center, I just found out about a study debunking the myth that people grow more conservative with age. In fact, sociologists from the University of Vermont and Penn State found that the opinions of Americans veer increasingly leftward. 

The scientists warn politicians and pundits to steer clear of predicting the behavior of candidates or voters when it comes to the upcoming election. But I’m more interested in what gave rise to the stereotype in the first place. I’d bought into it myself, framing it as a class issue. I figured that the elderly were more conservative because maintaining the status quo was the best way to protect the property they’d accumulated. Having amply partaken of the “American Dream,” those who felt financially secure would identify more strongly with it. 

Chatting with Helen Gressett in her powder-blue living room before turning on the tape recorder, I was thoroughly startled to hear her declare, “I think the United States is turning into a fascist country.” At 93 she’s still active with the Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center, which should have been a clue, and I went on to find out that Gressett’s been involved in social justice issues her whole life. Why had I expected her politics to be as conventional as her decor? 

The way a society treats its old old is very much a social justice issue, bringing to mind the aphorism (attributed to Gandhi and quite a few others): “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” To a large extent, free-market America leaves the very young and very old to fend for themselves. It’s the disenfranchised who turn to radicalism. Hmmm . . . maybe it’s starting to make more sense. As the dollar staggers, the war in Iraq grinds on, and what’s left of the American Dream goes the way of the glaciers, what political shifts might be coming down the pike?

4 thoughts on “Who says the old are conservative?

  1. There’s an element of truth to what you write, but it’s more complex. America’s capitalist culture definitely values people on their ability to produce surplus value, or to have accumulated lots of it. Other cultures are moving towards that at a fairly rapid pace. (Remember all the old folks who died in their rooms during that heat wave in France a few years back?) But agricultural and semi-feudal economies still value the old, maybe stemming from a tradition of ancestor worship. In India, China and Pakistan the elderly are considered integral parts of the family economic unit, and in revolutionary China, the knowledge and time of older people was recognized as benefiting the community.

    I know lots of really radical older folks who are still on the front lines, or not far behind. And certainly our generation, if we survive into old age, will be confronted with fat holes in the social safety net: diminished Social Security, diminished pensions or none at all, the need to keep working into advanced age in order to eat. There’s still a lot of resilience in US capitalism, and some ability to make adjustments to alleviate social unrest and anger. But unless they can secure the Middle East and regain their global economic and political hegemony, there ain’t no “New Deal” concessions likely.

  2. Helen passed away peacefully with her daughter Jessica and friends by her side in hospice at 7:50pm on June 10th, 2008 in Santa Fe.

    As a friend, we always joked that if she were 30 years younger and I 30 years older, we’d be a hot ticket. We settled on enjoying fancy dinners and visiting each other’s homes on more platonic terms.

    I’m not sad — she knew the day would come and lived every day for what it was. There were no regrets.

    If I don’t follow her example, it means I wasn’t paying attention.

    Adieu, peut-être à bientôt, ma cherie.


  3. When I interviewed Helen Gressett in Santa Fe this January, I had the good luck to cross paths with her daughter, Jessica Morton. Jessica and I have exchanged notes since Helen’s death at 91 on June 10th. She corrected my recollections of her mother’s décor, said “she’d have been tickled to know she was part of a blog,” and recalled Helen, then well into her 80s, saying that “she thought she wouldn’t live to be very old. I smiled and told her that she actually already WAS!”

    Here’s Jessica’s description of her mother’s last days:

    Helen Gressett spent her last 5 days at home, surrounded by a stream of
    visiting friends and her daughter. Each person reflected a facet of her
    vital and wide-ranging 91-and-a-half years. She had made fresh bread and
    bagels the week before she died, working hard to stay active and
    productive to the very end of her long and full life. She was smiling
    during those 5 days, especially when we made jokes, told her we loved her,
    or gave her tastes of favorite things like freshly-made strawberry jam, or
    champagne-which we toasted her with. She breathed her final breath at
    sunset, June 10th, with a look of serenity on her face and an ease that
    were truly a gift to us all.

  4. Not me.  I think just the opposite of olders.  Having been raised by a hippy, I assume olders are anti-establishment type folks.  LOL.

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