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The Aging Opportunity
We're living through the greatest miracle in the history of our species—the doubling of life expectancy since the Industrial Revolution—but we prefer to believe that our troubles are growing.
* * *
The Work Connection was inspired, in part, by Peter DiCicco's conviction that labor unions needed to think bigger, to range beyond the narrow objective of improving contracts for their members. They needed to become involved in strengthening the community and in standing up for the disenfranchised. The failure to do so, he was convinced, would mean marginalization. And as a vice president of the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) and head of its New England District Council representing workers at the Lynn, Massachusetts, General Electric plant, DiCicco was in a position to act on this conviction.
However, it was a personal experience as much as anything that sparked The Work Connection idea. DiCicco's nineteen-year-old son was in a car accident and ended up in court. At the hearing, DiCicco came forward to ask the judge for a community service sentence rather than a fine. "My son wasn't working," the union leader recalls. "He couldn't pay. So the court was fining the parents—not the boy. It isn't that I was unwilling to pay, but I was concerned because it didn't hold my son accountable for what he did." The judge agreed—but was simply too busy to get involved with creating new programs.
So DiCicco took on the idea himself, and soon the local electrical workers union was preparing to create what would become The Work Connection. In technical terms, The Work Connection was an "alternative sentencing program." Young people in trouble with the law for nonviolent crimes were given a second chance and a choice: They could avoid going to a "house of corrections" if they stayed out of trouble and compensated the victims of their crimes. In other words, they had to repay owners of all those televisions and stereos they had pilfered to get money for drugs.
The early reactions to the idea—from judges, police, community leaders—were quite favorable, yet there was also persistent concern about the ability of these young people to find and keep jobs. After all, if they failed to make their restitution payments, they would end up in jail. And these were kids who had never held steady employment, had dropped out of school, had no job skills or know-how, and could now boast a criminal record on their resumé.
For any of these kids to succeed, they would need extensive hand-holding, pragmatic advice, and new connections. They could forget about getting any of these from their probation officers, staggering under huge caseloads and generally more inclined toward scaring the boys straight than helping them get a foothold in mainstream society. They were unlikely to get that help from social workers either, for all their lofty intentions. How many social workers had ever looked for a job at an auto repair shop?
At roughly the same time DiCicco was struggling to get the program off the ground, he was required to leave town for an IUE conference in upstate New York. One of his responsibilities as an official in the international union was making the rounds to meet with various constituent groups. At one point in the proceedings, he ended up with the retirees. It was a low point of the conference.
These retired men seemed only to want to complain about what the union wasn't doing for them. As DiCicco was driving home, he continued to stew about the session. The retirees had everything going for them: excellent pensions, health benefits, years to live. Meanwhile, young guys in the union were being laid off and were facing real hardships. They were the ones with reason to complain. As DiCicco turned the session over and over in his mind, he realized it wasn't that these retirees were all that bad off materially—or had gotten such a raw deal from the union. What they lacked was purpose in their lives. They had too much time to sit around and think about what might be wrong with their situations.
Most of these men were individuals who had taken early retirement, often through incentive packages, but who were unprepared psychologically and socially to retire. For decades, the structure, human contact, and purpose in their lives had come, to a significant extent, from work. Now they found themselves in the position the great labor leader Walter Reuther years earlier had characterized as "too old to work, too young to die." They didn't consider themselves senior citizens: They weren't ready for the casino trips to Atlantic City. The local senior center had little to offer them. By default, they were spending their days staring at Phil Donahue, doing odd jobs around the house, and driving their spouses crazy.
But they were hardly washed up. In fact, they possessed exactly the kind of skills that the kids targeted by The Work Connection so desperately required. These men knew the Boston-area, blue-collar job networks—and were privy to the kind of informal information that's so often far more useful than the want ads when looking for jobs. They also knew the workplace. They knew what was expected, what you could and couldn't get away with, and how to get along in that setting. What's more, they had the time to listen to these kids, as human beings, not as professionals.
Why not solve two problems simultaneously, DiCicco thought, in a way that made obvious common sense? Get union retirees involved in mentoring kids and helping them break into the job market, and in the process, give the retirees themselves a new lease on life.
After he returned to District Council headquarters in the working-class town of Saugus (next to Lynn and the GE plant), DiCicco sent out a mailing to his own retirees, inviting them to help plan a role for themselves in The Work Connection. He received a dozen responses. For several weeks these retired electrical workers came down to the District Council headquarters every day at noon to eat sandwiches, shoot the breeze, and help devise the program.
A Stroke of Luck
I arrived at The Work Connection two years later. DiCicco's program was by then flourishing. He'd raised money from foundations and from the state criminal justice system. The number of retired mentors had grown considerably. Success stories were piling up. And all of this was good news for me.
At the time, I was working for a nonprofit group in Philadelphia dedicated to helping poor children. We'd just run into unanticipated good fortune. Our director flew to California to talk to the board of a foundation newly interested in the issue of jobs for inner-city teenagers. His speech went well. So well that the trustees of the foundation decided to give him an unsolicited grant.
There would be one string attached, however. For several years, the foundation had been funding "intergenerational" projects in which young and old were brought together to enjoy each other's company. Most of the money was spent on feel-good efforts that did little harm but were not about to change the world. The board decided more serious problems needed to be tackled than underwriting field trips to the nursing home for elementary school students.
Nevertheless, a small sum remained unspent in the foundation's budget. Would we be able to use that money to write something—really, anything—about bringing the young and old together? It was time for the philanthropy to get its budget spent and to move on to bigger and better things.
We said yes, in part because we were just not inclined to turn away money. But, mostly, we had an idea. For years one issue had continued to loom larger and larger in our experience with efforts to help children. It seemed that whenever we bothered to talk to the young people about what mattered most to them, we heard little about the sophisticated curriculum or other techniques we professionals spent so much time and money concocting. Rather, these young people wanted to talk about a person, usually an adult staff member or volunteer, with whom they had developed a close relationship.
Because we were an organization full of economists and quantitative social scientists, we didn't quite know how to incorporate what the young people were telling us. These relationships couldn't be reduced to variables or shoehorned into our research equations. We hankered to return to the hard-nosed business of developing "people-proof" programs—in other words, the kind we believed could be more reliably reproduced.
But as time went by, the perspectives of these young people became increasingly hard to ignore. They kept recurring, in more and more settings, with growing insistence. What these teenagers were saying—to anyone who would listen—was that they needed, more than anything else, adults who cared about them, who listened to them, who were willing to take a personal interest in their lives.
So by the time our serendipitous grant arrived, we were finally ready to take a closer look at the role mentoring might play in young lives. To satisfy the California foundation, we would restrict our focus to situations in which the mentors were older adults, and I was soon busy scouring the country for examples of members of the older generation being recruited to take young people under their wing.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any. I found plenty of "nice" things going on: lots of arts and crafts and friendly visiting, but nothing that seemed to be taking on urgent social problems. I was beginning to understand why our benefactors in California were getting out of the "intergenerational" business—when chance intervened again. As luck would have it, in casual conversation I learned that a friend of a friend was employed at something called The Work Connection—and The Work Connection was using labor union retirees to mentor young people growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. I would at least have one project to talk about in my report to our fortuitous funder.
Nevertheless, driving into Saugus on a damp November day, I could feel my initial enthusiasm wane. Downsizing had arrived in the area, and the whole North Shore above Boston was showing the effects. Saugus looked like a ghost town. My destination, the New England District Council "headquarters," turned out to be little more than a drab, two-story house covered in clapboard siding, surrounded by a rusty fence and a dirt yard full of rocks and trash. Hanging over the front door was a weathered sign with the IUE logo. I parked in front of the sub shop across the street and headed inside.
As soon as I met Tom Flood—my friend's friend and contact at IUE—my spirits again began to lift. Flood's excitement about what was happening through The Work Connection was palpable. Athletic, witty, full of good humor, Flood was in his fifties. (Something about him was immediately familiar; later I realized it was his voice, indistinguishable from that of the actor Harvey Keitel.) A veteran of the antipoverty movement, Flood got his start as a youth worker in New Haven—an Irish kid working in the city's African American neighborhoods during the heyday of War on Poverty programs. He later was involved in some of the most innovative job training experiments supported by the Ford Foundation in the 1960s. Now he was helping DiCicco turn The Work Connection into a professional operation. Flood's enthusiasm was not only palpable but credible: He'd seen plenty of oversold programs and dashed expectations over the past two decades. He could tell the real thing.
After a quick trip upstairs to see the urbane DiCicco (the antithesis of the "union boss" I'd somehow anticipated), Flood took me directly to a back room in the house where a group of The Work Connection "mentors" were in the midst of their weekly meeting. It was a scene closely resembling the weekly staff meeting at any human services agency: a group of adults sitting around a conference table discussing troubled youth in concerned tones, swapping ideas for dealing with thorny issues that had arisen, providing mutual support in the face of their daunting assignments.
The main difference, of course, was that this was not a human services agency, and the individuals seated around the table were not a collection of newly minted MSWs. This was a union hall, and around the table were Nick Spaneas, Micky Petti, George Riley, Jim Brennan, and a dozen other retired Teamsters, cops, electrical workers, and firemen. (By now, the program had mushroomed beyond DiCicco's own union.)
These were Reagan Democrats, tough guys talking about the need for "tough love," in George Riley's blunt words. George, no more than five feet, six inches tall, resembled an old photograph of a professional wrestler: barrel chest, thick glasses, low center of gravity. You wouldn't want him to have you in a half nelson. (If Tom Flood reminded me of Harvey Keitel, then George was reminiscent of Marlon Brando's Godfather.) He had, until recently, led the Teamsters in a neighboring town.
Micky Petti was once a stand-up comic and musician who performed in Las Vegas, before alcohol ended that phase of his career. The one woman in the group, Frances Perrin, was retired from the local GE plant. Soft-spoken, Frances was part of the original group that planned the program. Her presence had a leavening effect on the men, and she defended a brand of tough love considerably more nurturing than George Riley's. "We can build any kind of relationship we want to," she explained. "You do become attached to them, and the more you do for a particular person, the more influence you can have on them."
Another member of the group, retired Salem fire chief Jim Brennan, was recruited by Frances. It took her quite some time to bring Brennan in, but she won through persistence: "Some people are a little bit leery. Their first thought is `What good is it going to do?'" But Jim turned out to be a good recruit. He knew how to talk to kids. And the impact of having the respected former fire chief stand behind the young men when they were up for their probation hearings was significant. Jim's friendships with the police chief and other key local officials also turned out to be instrumental in building acceptance of the fledgling program.
At one end of the table was Nick Spaneas. He commanded little attention at first. Nick wasn't funny like Micky Petti, or as imposing as George Riley. He hadn't held a vaunted position like Jim Brennan. But when Nick began talking, he commanded the rapt attention of the group.
An intense man in his late fifties, with gray-black hair, heavy eyebrows, and deep-set eyes, Nick was dressed in the official outfit of retirement—neatly pressed slacks, a blue polo shirt, and a light tan jacket open in the front. From his attire, it was not hard to imagine him leaning on his putter on the fourteenth green, gassing it up with other men of leisure.
But Nick was not a duffer. And he was hardly a member of the leisure class. "I don't have an education," he explained, "but I have an education in life ... in real life, and that's what I teach them." All the young men attending Nick's one-on-one university of the real world had, like their mentor, dropped out of school. Most had lost interest in education years before. Some were homeless.
Nick's job was to get them a job. But he recognized that before he could tackle the issue of employment, he would have to overcome considerable wariness toward adults forged over years of stormy relationships with parents, teachers, police, probation officers, and other authority figures. "The first thing I tell them," Nick continued, "`I'm not a government agent. I'm here for you. Only you. I'm here because I want to do this.'"
And despite initial resistance, Nick was getting through because he offered something these young people desperately wanted: He cared. "They need adults with patience, adults who feel about them. They don't want bluffers," he reflected. "They know. Because they can outsmart anybody. They've been out in the streets so long, they know if you're sincere or if you're faking."
Tom Flood told me years later that Nick was the one guy he'd ever met who could talk to inner-city kids and "convince them that America is a land of opportunity." It wasn't a ploy. Nick believed there was hope for change, and the young people believed Nick because his own story was so powerful. As a child in Greece during World War II, he endured the slaughter of his entire family of twenty-four. He watched his mother and sister die within two weeks. ("I was never a little boy," he recalled. "I was a man when I was seven years old.") He survived, emigrating to the United States where he started working in a leather factory. Later he was a barber, then a bus driver. For over a quarter century, he played the bouzouki in a Greek band. But there were hardships as well, the most painful a divorce that left him cut off from his only child, a daughter.
In Nick, the young men recognized an anti-role model. He didn't preach to them. There was no exhorting them to "Be like me." Rather, his message was a version of "Don't be like me, don't make the mistakes I made. You're young enough to save your own life." He reminded them that he could still remember what it was like "not to have any supervision in life, to bounce around, and feel that you are nobody's kid."
A Wiser Man
But Nick and the other retirees did more than focus on connecting with the young people and improving their attitudes. They displayed a radarlike appreciation of how these kids were likely to get derailed. They knew, for example, that the young people would probably get turned down at least three times before landing a job. In anticipation, the older men would accompany their charges to early interviews and be waiting outside to prop them up after the rejections. Knowing that the young people would oversleep on their first week of work, the older men turned themselves into human alarm clocks. In an act recalling Woody Allen's line that 90 percent of success in life is showing up, the retirees were outside the kid's house on day one of work, banging on the door at 7 a.m. to make sure he got to work on time. For weeks they would repeat the practice on Monday mornings.
Most telling, they stationed themselves outside the plant gate on payday, knowing that with a pocket full of money the young men would be easily tempted to go out and blow their paychecks. The Work Connection retirees would intercept the kids first and head with them directly to the bank to make their restitution payments. After that, how the kids spent their money was their business. (There were many variations of this kind of help. Micky Petti was so trusted by his young men that several would actually give him their paycheck when they received it in the middle of the day. Micky would pick up the checks, go to the bank and cash them by special arrangement, take restitution payments to the courts, and be waiting for the young men with the balance of the paycheck when they got off from work. This way the boys didn't have to leave work in the middle of the day or draw attention to their legal problems.)
Micky was also a master at getting the young men jobs. He knew exactly when to show up with his "boys" at the local diner to maximize the likelihood of "accidentally" running into local employers. Micky would introduce his boys to these men—most of them local contractors and small business owners—and personally vouch for them. Over time, he even managed to convince his son, the manager of several equipment rental stores, to hire exclusively from The Work Connection.
For all these success stories, the work was rarely easy. Nick, for example, spent two years trying to get through to one young man, Eddie Dillon. From the start, things were rocky. "When Eddie was feeling bad, when he was taking dope, he called me everything under the sun," Nick recalled. "He had the house upside down, clothes all over the place, broken dishes, broken glasses, his girlfriend was shaking like a leaf." For a while, Nick threatened to wash his hands of Eddie. But over time, Eddie began to turn his life around. He sobered up, started working more steadily, took greater responsibility for his children. Nick reflected, "This kid was in bad, bad shape.... It took me all this time, but I fought and I fought.... I made up my mind not to give up until he goes straight, but Jesus, finally, he woke up."
"Some of them," Nick stated, reflecting on the various young men he'd mentored, "already know [they need to change]. But they don't know how to get out of it, because they don't have any connections. The only connections they got is the same people who started them that way." He added: "Most of the families, they don't care. They've put up with so much from these kids—and these families aren't stable to begin with—they kick them out of the house." The result: "These kids have no shoes, they're hungry, they live in the streets, and they try to block everything out by getting drunk or being doped up, because nobody cares." One of Nick's "boys" was living in a refrigerator box.
The turning point with Eddie was when the drug-addicted and depressed twenty-year-old, who had never known his father, committed himself to the psychiatric ward of Massachusetts General Hospital. Nick visited him daily in the hospital, then helped him make the difficult transition back home. It cemented their relationship: "I trust him more than anybody on this earth," Eddie told me in a low voice. "He always makes me feel like someone cares ... he's been more or less a father to me. He understands me. Maybe because he went through it himself. He's seen something that's made him a wiser man."
A Win-Win Situation
After my time with Nick and Micky and the other retirees, I was filled with a sense of optimism not only about what was happening in Saugus but also about the possibility of expanding The Work Connection idea to other communities. There were certainly plenty of union retirees and plenty of kids in Eddie's position.
One reason for my optimism was that The Work Connection retirees were such "ordinary people." They relied not on any special training or esoteric skills but on their own common sense and practical experience—their "educations in life." And they did so in the service of helping to alleviate real problems. (Jack Petropolous, one of The Work Connection staff, described the young people in the program as "the last-straw crowd.") Weren't there others out there with the same common sense, life experience, and yearning to make a difference?
The other reason I felt so encouraged sounds almost cynical: Nick and the others were not doing this work out of pure altruism. As Petropolous once remarked, these mentors were not a bunch of Mother Teresas. The men continued to show up, week in and week out, because they were getting so much out of their relationships with the youth. Reciprocity and mutual benefit were present in abundance.
As Nick once explained: "It's like being a father or a brother; I really get attached to them." Another time he revealed: "I'm hooked up with one kid—he touches some kind of spot in me." For Nick and the others, in many ways, The Work Connection offered a second chance every bit as much as it did for the kids—the chance to redeem themselves from past failings, to be the father they hadn't been before, to reaffirm the value of their own life experience. It was an opportunity for finding new purpose, for leaving the land a little better than they found it. They were doing something that mattered to themselves and to the community. In short, the success of The Work Connection program wasn't dependent on the shaky soil of idealism but rather was anchored in the much sturdier ground of enlightened self-interest.
In 1998 I reconnected with Tom Flood. We talked about The Work Connection and he told me about another retiree, one of his favorite mentors. "Mac" McElroy was a foreman at GE, a "big, raw-boned Irishman," recalled Flood, who rode a motorcycle well into his 70s—"the kids used to think he was John Wayne." Mac had assembled a good life but in his fifties started drinking heavily: "He lost his job, he lost his house, lost everything, even his motorcycle." But somehow he managed to pull himself together, remarried, even bought another motorcycle. He turned out to be one of Flood's best mentors. He'd take kids to AA meetings, get them jobs, talk to them about the lessons he'd learned in life. In the process, he found new meaning and dignity and some peace.
Flood also told me that The Work Connection was dead. He left in the late 1980s, and funding dried up a couple years later. I was stunned to hear that this little jewel of a program, so much of a win-win situation for all involved, was unable to attract even modest support. I wondered about Nick, Micky, and the others and the vacuum that this demise must have left in their lives.
The news was also disconcerting. At a juncture when America is about to become a much older society, when warnings about coming generational warfare abound, how could we let this affirmative glimpse of a different kind of relationship between young and old slip away? At a time when our communities face a profound shortage of human beings to tend the social fabric, how is it that we continue to overlook the presence of vast and untapped human resources in the older population? Even in individuals (like Nick) who on paper might not look so impressive but who in reality possess so much that we desperately need.
A Solution Waiting to Happen
The Long Gray Wave
America today is in the midst of a demographic revolution, one that will transform the country into a much older nation. Although awareness of its proportions is growing, the revolution is hardly new. It has been building in slow motion for most of the past century, starting with the Industrial Revolution and then beginning to accelerate in the post-war decades. In 1935, the U.S. Committee on Economic Security observed that although there were 6.5 million Americans over age 65 at the time—a little over 5 percent of the population—"this percentage has been increasing quite rapidly since the turn of the century and is expected to increase for several decades."
By the early 1960s, the over-65 population had reached 17 million. Thirty years later, the number has doubled to 34 million people, nearly 13 percent of the population. There are now five times as many older adults as there were when Social Security was introduced in the mid-1930s, and ten times as many Americans over 65 as there were in 1900. The proportion of individuals in later life has tripled, overall, since 1900, to produce an end result that is truly staggering: Half of all the people who have ever lived to age 65 are currently alive.
The major force driving these numbers is the dramatic growth in longevity, alongside reductions in infant and child mortality. In 1900, the average American could anticipate living to age 47. Today the figure is 76, with continued increases into the 80s anticipated by the middle of the twenty-first century. By then centenarians will be commonplace, with over 800,000 expected (compared with approximately 40,000 today)—and these individuals will likely be far more vigorous than they are today. They are part of an overall phenomenon that some call "downaging": Today's 80-year-olds are comparable in well-being and vigor to 60-year-olds in the last generation; 60-year-olds are like 40-year-olds; and so on. As gerontologist Robert Binstock has observed, "People used to think if you were in your 60s, you were basically waiting to die, and in a rocker." Now if somebody passes away before their 80s, people feel sorry and say, "He was a young guy."
The addition of three decades to the average life span in less than a hundred years—an increase in longevity greater than the total change over the previous 5,000 years—is surely one of the great wonders of the twentieth century. That change amounts to a 62 percent increase in the number of our days. As a result, an American woman reaching age 65 today can plan on living nearly twenty more years, while men can expect more than a decade and a half of continued life—most of it in reasonably good health. Demographic expert Chulhee Lee of the University of California, Berkeley, has projected that the average man aged 20 in 1990 can anticipate spending one-third of life in retirement. In short, we've added a new stage to life, one as long in duration as childhood or the middle years.
As remarkable as these numbers are, the real revolution is yet to be felt. Beginning just after the year 2000, the first wave of 80 million baby boomers will reach their late fifties and begin transforming America into a place where, for the first time ever, there will be more older adults than children and youth. By 2030, the number of older adults will have doubled again, to 70 million. Between a fifth and a quarter of the country will consist of these seasoned citizens, a transformation that has inspired some experts to talk about the "Floridization of America." Yet if anything, this characterization understates the change: A "mere" 19 percent of Florida's population today is over 65.
Demography Is Destiny—and Despair
Awareness of the magnitude of this demographic transformation is growing, but for the most part the aging of America is portrayed as a source of impending strife—as a "shipwreck," to borrow the word Chateaubriand used to describe his own old age. We hear little about individuals like Nick, but much about a vast and selfish cohort of elders out to bankrupt posterity. The anthem for the generation, we are told, can be found on the oft-cited bumper sticker "I'm spending my children's inheritance."
To date, the implications of the aging society have been primarily arbitrated by two groups of experts. Physicians cornering one part of the debate warn us to brace for an exponential increase in dependency, disease, and dementia as the oldest of the old become society's fastest-growing group. They talk bluntly about the "failure of success," the ironic downside to our ability to prolong life. As a result, we will soon be saddled with an immense burden: to families, human services, and the health care system.
Outdoing even the doctors in their gloomy predictions is a cadre of financiers and economists who truly dominate public debate about the aging society. And where the doctors locate decay, these analysts find greed. Chief among them is investment banker and former Nixon administration commerce secretary Pete Peterson. Peterson distills the aging of America into aphorisms like "graying means paying," depicting a crisis that he calls a "demographic time bomb." Peterson and the other wealthy backers of his antientitlement group, the Concord Coalition, excoriate members of the older population for their self-indulgence, charging that "Americans seem to think they have an inalienable right to live the last third of their adult lives in subsidized leisure."
For Peterson, the problem is not just entitlements but an "entitlement ethic" that threatens to condemn our posterity. He paints a bleak picture of our future as "a nation of Floridas," one dominated by older adults capable of little other than recreation, consumerism, ill-health, or, of course, snapping up their ever-growing government checks. "Been to Florida lately?" he asks readers in a May 1996 Atlantic Monthly article, "Will America Grow Up Before It Grows Old?" "You may not realize it, but you have seen the future ... the gray wave of senior citizens that fills the state's streets, beaches, parks, hotels, shopping malls, hospitals, Social Security offices, and senior centers." Peterson's article is accompanied by clever artwork portraying the elderly as a callous leisure class, living in age-segregated retirement communities, inured to the needs of the rest of society. One cartoon depicts an island filled with palm trees and populated by seniors sunning themselves indulgently while the rest of society—their arms flailing for help—drowns offshore.
Three years later in the 1999 book, Gray Dawn, Peterson returns to tell us that the aging of the population will not only sink America, but take the whole civilized world down with it. Shifting from tropical insouciance to a post-Titanic motif, Gray Dawn's subtitle announced: "There's an iceberg dead ahead. It's called global aging, and it threatens to bankrupt the great powers...." Full page advertisements for the book depict an ominous, impassable iceberg, informing potential readers that Gray Dawn will help them grasp just "how big the problem is."
Dating back to the mid-1980s, Peterson and his compatriots Neil Howe and Philip Longman have published a series of articles and books that hammer away at a trio of messages: (1) The elderly are selfish; (2) we can't afford entitlements; and (3) we are careening toward generational warfare. But Peterson and his Wall Street colleagues—who play a major role in financing the antientitlements campaigns, eager to reap a windfall if Social Security is privatized—are hardly alone in the backlash against the "greedy geezers."
Even the liberal economist Lester Thurow describes older Americans as a "new revolutionary class," displaying an antipathy for them that Peterson would be hard-pressed to match. For the first time in human history, he announces in apocalyptic language, we have a large group of elders who are affluent, inactive, in need of expensive social services, largely dependent on the government for their income, and intent on continually aggrandizing their position at the expense of the rest of society. According to Thurow, this new class is "bringing down the social welfare state, destroying government finances, altering the distribution of purchasing power and threatening the investments that all societies need to make to have a successful future."
In the process, these selfish seniors have us crashing headlong toward a new kind of social warfare, one between the young and the old rather than between the poor and the rich. And this prospect is not a distant worry: "In America the conflict is already clear," writes Thurow. "The elderly systematically vote against education levies when they have a chance. Better yet, they establish segregated retirement communities for themselves so that they will not have to pay for schools at all." In the arguments of Peterson, Thurow, and many other critics of the older population, these retirement communities function as the symbol of the elderly and their self-indulgence. (Thurow's New York Times Magazine essay, "The Birth of a Revolutionary Class," begins with the image of an elderly couple living in a Sun City—like setting, lounging about in lawn chairs perched atop plump sacks of cash.)
In his 1996 book The Future of Capitalism, Thurow invokes an obscure school district adjacent to a retirement community in Michigan to illustrate his case: "The most dramatic recent example of impending social conflict," he explains, "occurred in Kalhaska, Michigan, a retirement haven, where elderly voters essentially robbed the school budget to pay for other things such as snow plowing and then refused to vote the funds to allow the schools to finish the year." As a result, schools closed early and children were deprived of completing a full term.
We have met the enemy, Thurow concludes, "and he is the elderly `us.'"
Thurow and Peterson are joined by a parade of columnists and editorial writers who envision an aging America as a land of gleaming hospitals and decaying schools. However, these dire scenarios not only overstate the crisis we face but also overlook the opportunity presented by the aging revolution.
There is no question that our entitlement programs require reevaluation and change, and to some extent these critics play a useful role in reminding us that we need to address these issues at once. However, the message they deliver is often exaggerated and confusing. For example, Social Security can be fixed without wrenching changes. As John Cassidy notes in his incisive debunking of Peterson's alarmism ("Spooking the Boomers" in The New Yorker): "If no reforms were to be introduced between now and 2029—an eventuality that is highly unlikely—the government would still be able to send out checks worth three-quarters of today's benefits to all retirees for the succeeding half century." Hardly a demographic time bomb. By raising the payroll tax 2.2 percent—split evenly among employers and employees—the system would be made solvent through 2070. Other changes, even more modest, would produce similarly salubrious results. Social Security can be fixed, and it will be fixed without draconian measures.
As for the issue of schools, incidents like those occurring in the Kalhaska retirement community are truly distressing. And they are happening elsewhere too. Given that 49 percent of the voting population by 2030 will be over age 55, it is worth paying close attention to how older people vote on school funding issues. However, the research to date shows that older adults do not vote monolithically in response to these bond issues. Thurow is simply wrong on this point. Rather, their vote depends on several factors: One is whether the existing tax burden is high (since older adults often own their homes but are living on a fixed income, they are especially sensitive to increases in property taxes—the traditional vehicle for funding public schools). However, research shows that the decision is by no means driven exclusively by financial concerns. Two other critical issues are how good a job older adults believe the schools are doing, and how connected they are to these institutions.
For every Kalhaska, there is a Miami. In the late 1980s, Miami began a concerted effort to get more older adults involved as volunteers in the schools. Several years later, this corps—thousands strong—served as the spearhead for a campaign to pass a billion-dollar bond issue. Over 80 percent of the older population supported the successful measure, the largest in Miami's history. This fact is all the more striking because the preponderance of these older adults—like those in Kalhaska—had grandchildren living elsewhere.
Our Only Increasing Natural Resource
The problem with so much hand-wringing about the aging of America is not only that it distorts the purported crisis but also that it is blinding us to the benefits of an aging society—as the counterexample from Miami highlights. Graying is about more than just paying, and the aging of America is about more than entitlements and the cost of supporting a much larger older population. In fact, the long gray wave that Peterson describes may be every bit as much an opportunity to be seized as a crisis to be solved—provided we can learn to capture the time, talent, and experience of the older population and apply this largely untapped resource to some of the most urgent unmet needs of society. Indeed, the purported source of our downfall may actually be our salvation.
Contrary to prevailing stereotypes, America now possesses not only the largest and fastest-growing population of older adults in our history but also the healthiest, most vigorous, and best educated. Only 5 percent of these individuals live in nursing homes, and the vast majority experience no disability whatsoever. In fact, recent research by Duke University's Center for Demographic Studies shows a 15 percent drop in disability during the period 1982-1994. There are also more college and high school graduates in the population group than ever before.
Perhaps most important, older Americans possess what everybody else in society so desperately lacks: time. First, older Americans have time to care. As the British historian Peter Laslett observes, free time was once the exclusive province of the aristocracy; today, it is the democratic possession of millions of citizens—those in later life. Retirement frees up 25 hours a week for men and 18 hours for women, according to time-diary studies conducted by the University of Maryland's Survey Research Center. And even though the trend has started to slow, many people are retiring early. In 1948, 90 percent of all men between 55 and 64 were working: nearly a half century later, only 67 percent are in the paid labor force. Overall, only one in five Americans over age 55 is on the job.
Second, older adults have more time lived. They have practical knowledge—and, often, wisdom—gained from experience. Nick and his colleagues in The Work Connection offer vivid illustration; like so many others in this age group, they've been around the block. They've held jobs, built social networks, raised families. They are also particularly civic-minded: Older adults vote at a higher rate than any other segment of the population. And because these individuals often carry with them a world lost to younger generations, they may well be our greatest practical repository of the "social capital" that many observers today fear is drying up.
Third, time left to live may give older adults a special reason to become involved in ways that both provide personal meaning and make a significant difference to others. The awareness in old age that death is closer than birth inspires many to reflect—and act—related to the legacy that we leave behind. According to the late psychologist Erik Erikson, the hallmark of successful late-life development is the capacity to be generative, to pass on to future generations what one has learned from life. For Erikson, this notion is encapsulated in the understanding "I am what survives of me."
For all these reasons, older Americans may well be our only increasing natural resource. Nevertheless, it is not a resource in oversupply. At precisely the juncture that this country contains so much pent-up time, talent, and experience in the older population, we are in the midst of a human resource crisis of staggering proportions, a crisis that goes well beyond Silicon Valley's never-ending search for more software engineers. It is a crisis in our communities, in the realm of civil society—where children are all too often growing up alone, where we don't have nearly enough people to care for the frail elderly, where we face a teacher shortage of nearly 200,000 over the coming decade.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that "The American heart readily leans to the side of kindness." A century and a half later, it's hard to be so sure. Observers across the political spectrum—most notably the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam—are sounding the civic alarm, citing research indicating diminished community involvement. According to a 1996 Gallup survey conducted for Independent Sector, the proportion of adults who volunteer declined from 54 to 49 percent between 1989 and 1995. In absolute numbers, that's a decline of 5 million volunteers. And the vast majority of participating individuals gave only a few hours a week.
These numbers are hardly surprising, given the time famine afflicting so many adults in our society. As Harvard economist Juliet Schorr documents, the average American now works 162 more hours a year than twenty years ago, the equivalent of an extra month on the job. With these individuals attempting to compress thirteen months of work into the space of twelve, something has to give. As Schorr's analysis reveals, "The time squeeze has taken a toll on volunteer activities, which have fallen considerably since the rise in hours began."
Changes in the role of women are surely one of the key factors in the overall crisis in the social sector. For most of the twentieth century, through a myriad of unpaid, undervalued, often unnoticed tasks, women have served as the glue in American communities. But today, 61.7 percent of mothers with preschoolers (and half of all mothers with infants) are working at paid jobs, up from 19 percent in 1960. And two-thirds of employed mothers work full-time. Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild has shown that when child rearing, housework, and paid employment are combined, women work 15 more hours a week than men do—equivalent to an extra month of 24-hour days each year. After a workweek of 80 or even 100 hours, how many people have the time and energy for a third shift laboring on behalf of the greater good? It is no wonder that even PTA membership has plummeted from 12 million to 7 million since the mid-1960s.
In The Time Bind, Hochschild provides a familiar example of this transformation. In her study of a community in upstate New York, she reports that while some women in the middle generation continue to make substantial contributions to volunteer work, the majority are no longer available: "Like Emily Denton, many of these mothers found themselves part of a dwindling band of volunteers at school, the Girl Scout troop, or the church Christmas pageant." The effect was not only a diminished civic workforce but diminished overall value placed on this type of engagement. "As community volunteers," Hochschild concludes, "it seemed harder these days to feel that they were doing desirable work for an appreciative community."
In the eyes of reactionaries, this vacuum is another reason for women to resume their traditional role. In a 1996 Commentary article, "Why Mothers Should Stay Home," Yale professor and conservative social critic David Galernter chastises the women's movement for championing equal employment instead of "a national corps of full-time mothers" serving "as the mainstay of community and civil society." But this view ignores the profound economic, psychological, and social forces propelling women to work. Even Galernter admits that a full-time mother corps is now unrealistic.
A more promising route to civic renewal resides in looking forward, not in hoping that history will suddenly begin running backward.
|1||The Aging Opportunity||1|
|First Person: Steve Weiner||27|
|2||A Year-Round Vacation||32|
|First Person: Aggie Bennett and Louise Casey||75|
|3||The Quiet Revolution||79|
|First Person: Thea Glass||123|
|First Person: Harold Allen||169|
|5||Leaving a Legacy||174|
|First Person: Marv Welt||217|
|6||If We Build It ...||222|
|Notes and Sources||262|