Old Age Should Burn and Rave at Close of Day

Back when I was an English teacher, one of the best writing tips I gave my students was to write the last paragraph of an essay first, and the first paragraph last. Remember Benjamin Button (recently played by Brad Pitt)? The guy who was born old, grew younger every year, and finally faded into infancy and unborn-ness? Maybe that’s how most of us live. The teenage brain has no sense of the long term. With most of his three-score and ten years still ahead, the teenager lives as if there were no tomorrow. Developing a sense of the future, and then the ability to plan for it, is the project of young adulthood. Some of us do it better than others. But by the time we reach the post-householder age (as the Hindus define it), there really are very few tomorrows left, but we live as if our future were completely fixed and defined.

Admittedly, the post-householder age is not what it used to be. There’s a lot more of it. When Prussian Chancellor Bismarck, back in the 1880s, introduced government-funded old age pensions, he set them up to begin at age 65—because by that age, the average German citizen was dead. Today, Social Security coverage would have to begin at 80 to accomplish the same goals. And most of us are still in pretty good health until shortly before death. The average American spends half of his total lifetime medical expenditure in the last six months of life. For the 14.5 or so years before that, most of us are in pretty good shape.

So here we are, we older Americans, with 14.5 years of able-bodied life ahead of us, free of workplace obligations, educated by experience to know which way the wind is blowing without the aid of a meteorologist, and, often, more economically secure than we have ever been before. “The last of life for which the first was made,” as Robert Browning presciently called it. We are the natural revolutionary cadre. We can no longer leave it to the college kids, who are overworked and economically terrorized, desperate to build a future they cannot imagine. We have the security. We have the education and experience. Above all, we have the time.

What we don’t have is a romance of revolution. The Arab Spring is rooted in societies where the median age is 30 or under—pretty much like “the ‘60s” in the US and Europe. In 1966, Time Magazine named the youth of the ‘60s its “Person of the Year.” We still think of revolution as the task of youth. That’s a luxury our country as a whole can no longer afford. The median age of the American population is now close to 40. And everybody under 60 or thereabouts is expected to be either working for pay, or trying to find work. We geezers and crones are the only people allowed to do anything else useful with our time, and even availed of the necessities of life while we do it.

My brief perusal of the coverage of Occupy Wall Street in New York and its parallel protests in other cities tells me the media see the protesters as “students” and “youth.” I’m a bit skeptical of this depiction. Back in The Day, I spent a fair amount of time in protests and rallies myself. I was at the time an English teacher, respectably married, and generally went to such events wearing skirt, blouse, and jacket, hose and shoes. Most of the people I hung out with were similarly employed and attired. But we never showed up in the coverage. Had there been one single long-haired scraggly hippie among us, he was, invariably, the one who would turn up on the evening news. So if the media want to define this round of protests as completely youth-oriented, mere facts won’t stop them. And if the Raging Grannies and the Gray Panthers and our other age-mates happen to be turning out in respectable numbers, we will probably be operating under cover of media-generated ignorance for at least the first year or two, and that may be just as well. Invisibility is a useful tool and an excellent weapon. Let’s hold off on public Dodder-Ins for a while yet.

In the meantime, I have just managed to get some assistance with taking care of Mr. Wired, so I will be able to spend more time practicing law and getting to Shabbat services. This is going to be an interesting year. Peace and light to you all.

Red Emma

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