The Aging Boom


One happy outcome of the aging of the baby boom generation would be a loosening of the headlock that youth has long had on our culture. Can’t the triviality of so much of American life find its source in the way marketers and the media scamper after everything 18-year-olds do and like? Perhaps boomers can drag with them into old age some societal interest in experience and even wisdom. The generations before and after the boomers have long been weary, we’re told, of boomers’ self-absorption, but the most serious charges go well beyond the generation’s lifelong impact on the culture. The titanic size of the boomer population, it is said, will lead to economic ruin once enough of them—us—turn 65. There just won’t be a sufficient number of working Americans to keep us all in drool cups and Depends. This argument ought to be limited to the viability of Social Security and Medicare, but it has been appropriated, as Lincoln Caplan writes in our cover story, to scare people into shrinking other government programs—most tragically those affecting children and the working poor. But what if this analysis is wrong, even as it relates to Social Security and Medicare?

The formula on which the argument is based is a simple one—compare the number of working Americans with the number who are not working—but as Caplan explains, that formula is not just simple but simpleminded. The counterargument is complicated but persuasive. We are not headed toward this disaster, at least, if we muster the political will to make a few sensible adjustments. Read “The Fear Factor” to understand why.

Although the parts of his piece that relate to public policy get me steamed, Caplan makes subtler points about how we must rethink the implications of the longer lives all of us can expect to live. How should this longevity affect our thinking about work, about the interdependence of the generations, and indeed about how we regard the old?

A few of our readers point out, not altogether happily, that we have been doing more than our part at the SCHOLAR recently to combat ageism. In the last issue, we featured three writers well past 80, and in the current issue we add another one, Jan Morris, at 87 writing as beautifully as ever. Her subject is, uh, growing old. I doubt that even a youth-mad editor could have resisted any of these four essays—the other three were by Edward Hoagland, Maxine Kumin, and Doris Grumbach—not only because of the writing itself, but because they so profitably distill a lifetime’s experience. What’s not to like about that? But the old do not have a stranglehold on wisdom. I’m happy to report that the youngest writer we have ever published, Pacifique Irankunda, just won a Pushcart Prize for “Playing at Violence,” an article that appeared in these pages a year ago.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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