"Greedy Geezers" is a trendy new media narrative. Even former senator Alan Simpson, co chair of President Obama's debt commission, said of seniors, "We had the greatest generation -- I think this is the greediest generation."
Comedian Albert Brooks has a new book (2030) in which cancer is cured, seniors live longer and their kids are really angry because mom and dad are gobbling up all the resources.
The message is that we seniors are enjoying the good life, spending all our money on ourselves while siphoning off public money because we vote for our "entitlements." We are stealing from our children, increasing the debt -- maybe we even created the financial crisis with out overly affluent lifestyles
To which I say, "Baloney."
Indeed, research does say that older Americans as a group may be less likely then other age cohorts to be facing severe economic problems. But that's not because we are so rich and squandering our children's future. It's because we've voted for the safety net that keeps so many of us out of the poorhouse -- the exact same net that people are saying we ought to relinquish.
Sociologists John Mirowsky and Catherine Ross at Ohio State point out that seniors do well mainly because their medical expenses are covered by Medicare and that they receive Social Security. (Some 20 percent of seniors have social security as their only income.) Yeah, we really are greedy. We don't want to have to choose between paying for health care and eating every day.
And we've paid all our lives for social security through our taxes. This is no handout. Thanks to raises in payroll taxes in the 80s, the Social Security Administration reports that the program's trust fund is projected to grow steadily for nearly 20 more years. After that, there will be sufficient money to pay 100 percent of benefits until around 2041. After that, payroll tax revenue alone should be able to meet 78 percent of the program's obligations -- even if no changes are made.
Medicare is one of the most successful safety programs ever invented. Know what happened to old people before it was around? If they didn't have a relative to take them in, there really were poorhouses -- awful places. Some states paid families to take in old people -- mostly women. Some were treated kindly. Others were abused and literally worked to death. Before Social Security and Medicare, being old in America could literally be a horror show.
The Greedy Geezer story line is really a smokescreen to obscure to obscure the role of the really greedy elites who championed unsustainable tax breaks for the rich, a financially ruinous war in Iraq and risky financial schemes that put our entire housing market underwater. As Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says, "People who advocated budget-busting policies during the Bush years shouldn't be allowed to pass themselves off as deficit hawks... We need to place the blame where it belongs, to chasten our policy elites. Otherwise, they'll do even more damage in the years ahead."
As for the general indictment of an entire generation that is now over 60, let me demur. We should indeed admire the greatest generation -- our parents -- for saving the world from fascism. But I would point out that in the world I was born into, racial discrimination held sway by law and by custom, women were barred from most good jobs and gays and lesbians were victims of hate and discrimination.
We seniors helped to change all that. Some of us marched with a young minister named Martin Luther King and destroyed Jim Crow in the South. Some of us worked hard to smash the barriers to women in education, law, medicine, business and other places in American life. Some of us championed the rights of gay Americans and are starting to see them written into law. (Yes, there were some sex, drugs and rock and roll along the way, but the greatest generation had jazz, swing, booze, and their fair share of sex as well. )
We seniors are part of a generation that marched, and protested and worked to change the nation, mostly for the better. So don't expect us to take this libel lying down.
Geezer Power can be awesome! (Even if we now march on artificial hips. )
Caryl Rivers is a professor of Journalism at Boston University and co-author of the forthcoming The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children with Dr. Rosalind Barnett. (Columbia University Press. )