Senior bashing has become popular in the yuppie community, and now we are even being bludgeoned by some of our own. Henry Fairlie--resident gadfly and neo-reactionary at the New Republic--wrote an article last month called "Talkin' About My Generation" in which he took all of us 60-and-over citizens to task as greedy, selfish malcontents being "rewarded for no more than performing the accepted tasks of life, or fighting in the Second World War, as many of today's elderly bleat."
Apparently, his principal credential for this outburst is that he will soon turn 65 himself.
Fairlie supports his thesis with a lot of suspect numbers and a whole series of generalizations attributed to no visible authority or projected from a single observation of his own. For example, he leads off by saying that 30% of the annual federal budget goes for spending on people over the age of 65 and that within 40 years this figure will increase to two-thirds. I spent a couple of hours in the government publications section of the UCI library trying to check these figures, with mixed results.
According to the most recent issue of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, a total of $270 billion was spent on all benefits for the elderly in 1986. Since the federal budget was $980 billion, this comes out to a little over 27%. Close enough. But how he arrived at the two-thirds figure I have no idea, since defense spending and interest on the federal debt alone regularly account for more than 40% of the federal budget.
He uses old figures without so indicating and sometimes compares apples and oranges--claiming, for example, that there are more young than elderly people below the poverty level by using percentages figured from quite different poverty bases. And he frequently generalizes from single specifics, as when he uses retirement communities in Florida and Arizona to illustrate the affluent life style of all older Americans.
He also contends that many--that nebulous word again--of the doctors catering to the old are psychiatrists, therapists and cosmeticians, concluding that "if one needs a psychiatrist by the time one is 65, one should take the quick way out--make a shallow dive from a high bridge to the tarmac, and so go to meet the Great Therapist in the Sky."
Oh, well. Fairlie bashing is probably no more productive than senior bashing--and besides, he also made some thoughtful points. For example:
* "My first savoring of growing old seems to promise a time of great richness, contemplation and absorbing interest. One not only has the years ahead but begins to recapture the whole of one's life in ways for which even one's middle years are unequipped."
* "In growing old, one has a stocked attic in which to rummage, and the still passing show and pageant of human life to observe, not only at a more leisurely pace, but with the convincing satisfaction and interest of having lived through many of the changes, even from their beginnings, that have brought us from there to here."
The point of all this is not to critique Fairlie's work but to use it as an example of a trend that probably will continue: the effort to cut back on benefits to the elderly on the ground that we are getting more than our fair share.
Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) heads an organization called Americans for Generational Equity dedicated unabashedly to that purpose. So the lines are being drawn--and the almost automatic reluctance of politicians to cut back on benefits to the elderly may very well be a thing of the past.
These arguments will be made and should be considered--especially the arguments about need. But there is one element to them that disturbs me deeply. It was evident in virtually every line of Fairlie's essay, and it is built into the fabric of the current attacks on benefits to the elderly.
All of these attacks are based on economic arguments: The elderly have too much of the pie; they are no longer economically productive, therefore they shouldn't share so handsomely in the production of others.
These arguments reflect two cornerstones of this society that can be enormously unattractive when carried to extremes: the inclination to convert all values into terms of money, and a parallel inclination to boot the elderly out of the mainstream of productive society at a time when they still have much to contribute.
Both of these elements are unique to the United States. In most other societies, the elderly are regarded as a national resource whose experience and wisdom can provide direction and perspective to those who are moving into activist roles. And the key to their treatment is humanitarian rather than economic.
I suspect if Americans treated their elderly in that fashion, there would be a lot fewer retirement communities in Florida and Arizona. The yuppies want it both ways. They want the older generation out of their way, especially on the business front, then they holler foul when that generation claims benefits for which it has worked and to which it has contributed for five decades.
Well, if that is where the lines are to be drawn, so be it. But the senior bashers are in for one hell of a fight.