Playing the Age Card

Playing the Age Card

This essay is adapted from Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s Aged by Culture.


Alan Greenspan has recently been frightening Americans again, as he did in April, by threatening that Congress will have to cut Social Security benefits to fund retirement for “aging Boomers.” In fact, the trust fund is solvent until 2042 and sloshing with surpluses. Manufacturing a crisis helps Congressional conservatives spill our precious contributions into the unquenchable stock market.

Given the data, where does Greenspan get his nerve? Why did NPR’s Neal Conan, after Greenspan’s earlier remarks, speak of “the remorseless arithmetic of what could be an impending budget disaster”? A friend of our son snapped, “I pay 15 percent into FICA, but Social Security won’t be there for me.” Why imply that this, if true, would be my fault? How can the right wing repeat disinformation endlessly and get verbal support from others who do not share their ideology?

What greases the skids is the innocent-looking practice of “Boomer-bashing.” In case you haven’t noticed, Armageddon will be the fault of the people born between 1946 and 1964. Since the 1990-91 recession, they have been cleverly vilified. A 1997 New York Times op-ed said that Crybaby Boomers “hate their kids.” Pictured as essentially wealthy, self-righteous, unwilling to share their vast power and, of course, aging, they possess a not-so-mysterious grudge against photogenic “Generation Xers.” A Boston Globe article described their craven autobiography: “idealistic longhairs” who became “yuppies” are now “ready for the glory days of the menopausal and the bald.” “Boomers” are typically imagined as undeserving: techno-illiterate, overpaid, sexually failed, narcissistic. The urban myth is that a young person can find a job only if a (white, male) midlife person loses one. Roz Chast in The New Yorker sardonically saluted “The Crummiest Generation.”

Are “Boomers” rich? True, the age-wage peak now comes between 45 and 54 (not only for men but also, finally, for women and African-Americans). But each successive cohort of men 45 to 54 has been worse off financially. “Half or more of male workers lost ground as they aged from their 30s into their 40s, 50s, and 60s,” notes economist Jeff Madrick. Midlife downsizing and outsourcing effectively gets rid of workers at the peak of their earning power. The results? Median income of men at their peak is only $41,072 (2000 data). Median net worth of people 45 to 54, omitting houses, is an appalling $23,525. In one survey, a third of those 50 to 59 who left a job cashed in their 401(k)s. Women 45 to 54 earn more than their mothers, but their dollar peak is still only 60 percent of men’s. Declines often occur in the family life course when children are most expensive and parents begin to need care.

The term “Boomers”–or worse, “aging workers”–hides more accurate descriptors: The experienced. Long-term unemployed who have run out of benefits. The new reserve army of the under- and unemployed.

Age does dirty work nationally and for global capitalism. The Boomers-as-bosses, holding on to the good jobs, “explains” why working conditions are so degraded: insecure, underpaid, part-time or with longer hours, stressful. The Boomers’ Social Security benefits, presented as if they will be more lavish than now, will mean “coming ‘entitlement wars'” that “make the generation gap of the 1960s seem quaint,” USA Today foretold. “Old people are coming! Old people are coming!” Misrepresented as a menace, Boomers have to be fought. Privatizing Social Security is one form of revenge. Boomers deserve “abrupt” cuts in government benefits, says Robert Samuelson in Newsweek. Force them to work longer. Cut “heroic” healthcare measures as they lie dying. “Generational accounting”–putting human relations as well as budgets in terms of “burdens” laid on the young–follows hard on the “alarmist demography” (as age critic Stephen Katz calls it). The neoliberal spin on age obscures long-term midlife declines, undermines seniority systems and respect for aging into the middle years, paralyzes intergenerational solidarity and ignores real sources of scarcity.

Age war means not having to admit class war from above or government’s role in the starveling minimum wage, antiunionism, dangerous tax cuts for the rich, capital and job flights, NAFTA, CAFTA and the WTO. The decline of the working life course is going on in all the advanced capitalist countries, despite increases in longevity: It’s the latest acceleration of the wage race to the bottom. Playing the age card, in short, diffuses what could be political anger and activism.

When Americans agree that we have an “aging” crisis rather than a capitalist one, they are thinking in right-wing terms. Partisan politics is trapped in our everyday attitudes and in jokes about “senior moments.” Conservatives are left free to slyly play the age card, not only to try to privatize Social Security but across a range of issues.

Americans need to hear midlife people protesting, “We didn’t eat the goodies; we’ve been helpless to save them. Middle-ageism means dismal consequences for everyone younger who follows us.” Adept at seeing through the race card, the gender card, the class card, we need anti-decline policies, not “anti-aging” products. “Full Employment-Plus” would mean millions of good jobs, a re-empowered labor movement and public policies routinely examined for their effects on the age-wage curve, security and seniority. Congress could penalize offshoring and downsizing and restore midlife antidiscrimination law. Progressives must recognize a new mission underlying their familiar work: rescuing the life course.

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