Props to David Brooks. Sort of.

In his op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, David Brooks points out that conceiving of old people as detached, depressed, and ineducable is not just outdated but wrong. “The research paints a comforting picture,” he writes. Then the editorial runs into trouble, starting with its title, “The Geezers’ Crusade” — and not the geezer part. Older Americans do vote in greater numbers than younger citizens, but the widespread presumption that they vote as a bloc is another myth. As heterogeneous as people at any other age, older people are no more likely to organize themselves into a  “crusade.”

Brooks might as well have left the proverbial “greedy” in front of “geezer.” He claims that “In 2009 . . . every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs” and that “pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.” So the country’s route to fiscal health lies in cutting pensions and health care for the old? How about a nod to the latest federal budget (a 3.4 per cent increase in the Pentagon budget, to $549bn, plus an additional $159bn for troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan) instead of falling back on the same tired old-versus-young scenario? Those geezers aren’t very good at greed either: according to 2006 US Census data, the income of nearly 25% of people over 65 is less than $39 per day.  

Brooks exhorts the old to “organize around the cause of unselfishness,” concluding sanctimoniously, “The elderly. They are our future.” In fact, we are our future. His scenario, in which grandparents systematically rob their grandchildren of money, “freedom,” and opportunity, exonerates the parents in the middle. No cohort has more power to shape the country’s social and economic priorities than the baby boom generation, to which Brooks and I belong.  The first step in any effective social movement is to internalize the fact that “they” — those gadabout grandparents — are “us,” or soon to be.


I'm not a David Brooks fan but I think his argument here is more nuanced than you give him credit for.  Whether he meant to or not, Brooks seems to be acknowledging that the way our society allocates resources between generations is broken and that unless boomers take a lead in fixing it, the tension between young and old is likely to deteriorate beyond current imagining.

but Brooks places the onus entirely on the older generation, writing, "The only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change." Differences between the old and the young are real and eternal, but they do not inevitably result in  conflict.  They're portrayed that way because conflict gets people riled up and sells newspapers.  In fact, the "winners" and "losers" are defined to by the mood of the moment or the writer. Social Security, for example, was cooked up in the 1930s to help young families who'd moved from farms to cities and become dependent on a single breadwinner. Another example: today many of the most vocal opponents of a government-run system of health care are themselves on Medicare. Go figure. One thing's for sure:  their kids are glad their parents have health insurance.  The very old and very young are natural allies, and those in the middle welcome help in shouldering responsibility for their care.  It's not a zero-sum game. On the other hand, today's serious economic problems will be greatly exacerbated by the longevity revolution. The challenge is to allocate resources so that neither the young nor the old are economically dependent on the other — to create a world, in the words of historian David Hackett Fischer, "in which the deep eternal differences between age and youth are recognized and respected without being organized into a system of social inequality."