In his op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, David Brooks points out that conceiving of old people as detached, depressed, and ineducable is not just outdated but wrong. “The research paints a comforting picture,” he writes. Then the editorial runs into trouble, starting with its title, “The Geezers’ Crusade” — and not the geezer part. Older Americans do vote in greater numbers than younger citizens, but the widespread presumption that they vote as a bloc is another myth. As heterogeneous as people at any other age, older people are no more likely to organize themselves into a “crusade.”
Brooks might as well have left the proverbial “greedy” in front of “geezer.” He claims that “In 2009 . . . every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs” and that “pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.” So the country’s route to fiscal health lies in cutting pensions and health care for the old? How about a nod to the latest federal budget (a 3.4 per cent increase in the Pentagon budget, to $549bn, plus an additional $159bn for troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) instead of falling back on the same tired old-versus-young scenario? Those geezers aren’t very good at greed either: according to 2006 US Census data, the income of nearly 25% of people over 65 is less than $39 per day.
Brooks exhorts the old to “organize around the cause of unselfishness,” concluding sanctimoniously, “The elderly. They are our future.” In fact, we are our future. His scenario, in which grandparents systematically rob their grandchildren of money, “freedom,” and opportunity, exonerates the parents in the middle. No cohort has more power to shape the country’s social and economic priorities than the baby boom generation, to which Brooks and I belong. The first step in any effective social movement is to internalize the fact that “they” — those gadabout grandparents — are “us,” or soon to be.