Nov 27, 2009
By Fred Branfman
Was it bitter then with our backs against the wall?
Were we better men than we'd ever been before?
Say, if she came again today, would you still answer to the call?
Tell the truth, my friend, don't it matter anymore?
from "Living Legend," by Kris Kristofferson
Could the demographics and economics of a giant aging baby-boom
generation unleash long-repressed pools of youthful idealism to
produce a new "elder culture"? Could boomer seniors finally realize
the failed hopes of their youth for a socially just, environmentally
sane, nonmaterialistic and peaceful America? And, whatever happens to
society as a whole, can old age, health scares and greater proximity
to death produce psychological and spiritual breakthroughs for
individual boomers that vastly enrich and deepen their lives?
As I read Theodore Roszak's lyrical passages in "The Making of an
Elder Culture" about the possibilities of personal transformation
through aging I remembered Hans, a fellow with AIDS with whom I used
to meditate. The light, joy and spiritual energy he emanated made
believable his claim that his illness had brought his life to new
levels of joy. I was spellbound one morning, for example, as he
described consciously taking several hours rather than his usual 20
minutes to walk to the Berkeley Co-op. He spoke vividly of the
people, animals, homes, shops, trees, flowers, plant life; the shape
and texture of the clouds; the thinking behind the use of space; the
green areas; the way traffic was directed; how people treated their
pets. I left our talk joyful myself, as often occurs for those
interacting with someone who has had a taste of enlightenment.
Cases like Hans' are far more common than we think, and it is in such
possibilities for personal change that Roszak grounds his hopes for
societal transformation. "If we confront the experience with full
awareness, aging can prepare us to learn what so many great sages
have tried to teach: to be mindful of our mortality, to honor the
needs of the soul, to practice compassion. Conscious aging opens us
to these truths; it is a mighty undoer of the ego," he writes.
He teaches Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," he explains,
because it illustrates how proximity to death can lead to a greater
appreciation of life: "I have valued Tolstoy's story over the years
because it uses death so powerfully to teach the magnificence of
life." This theme is more fully developed in a new book, "Beyond
Death Anxiety: Achieving Life-Affirming Death Awareness," by Dr.
Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett, perhaps the clearest explanation
to date of how unconscious death anxiety limits lives that can be
vastly expanded if we dare to consciously feel our feelings about our
Although he believes aging can transform individuals, however, Roszak
aims far higher, urging boomers to rekindle their youthful idealism
and remake America: "I seek ... above all, to create a new paradigm
for aging that will enable the baby boom generation to live out its
history with moral courage and high expectations."
Roszak hopes that aging will see boomers combine a new "elder"
consciousness with a real-life intergenerational political movement
that will fight for entitlements not only for themselves but everyone
in need. His new paradigm also includes "environmental
enlightenment," "voluntary simplicity," "gentleness and ethical
responsibility" and seniors engaging in "volunteer services, higher
education, and political activism" on behalf of the young. He hopes
that baby boomers, who in their youth created the civil rights,
anti-war, environmental, sexual liberation and feminist movements,
will as seniors once more mount the barricades and create the
gentler, kinder American society of which they once dreamed.
And he is not coy about saying how this new paradigm will be
financed. "And where will that money [for entitlements] be found
except in the pockets of corporate America, where it has been stashed
away in ever-increasing amounts since the days of the Reagan
Presidency? When the crunch comes ... we will hear the old populist
battle cry: `Soak the rich!' " He would also, needless to say,
dramatically reduce military spending.
For many, of course, Roszak's dream is a nightmare. The "change" most
Americans want from President Barack Obama is for him to restore
their previous way of life, not transform it into an existence under
a European-style welfare state. A Wall Street Journal editor recently
opined that "old Europe lives in a world of unpayable public pension
obligations, weak job creation for its younger workers,
below-replacement birth rates ... high taxes to pay for the public
high-life, and history's most crucial proof of decaythe inability to
finance one's armies."
Others, while sharing Roszak's hopes, will see them as being as naive
as his overblown depiction of baby boomers in his best-selling 1969
book, "The Making of the Counter Culture." Roszak himself writes now
that "perhaps I would have [had] less hope of rapid social change if
I could have foreseen how many members of the younger generation
would eventually wind up as cultural conservatives or evangelical
Christians [or] settle for lucrative business careers." Also, of
course, many formerly liberal boomers have grown politically
disengaged over time.
And many "Y Generation" members will not seek to be led by boomer
"elders" whom they see as at best well-intentioned but overweight,
self-absorbed, impractical bloviators who smoked too much weed in
their youth and fail to produce real-world results today. Many see
both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush as archetypes of self-indulgent
boomerism, and welcomed Obama not only for his personal qualities but
as a symbol of generational change.
Before too quickly dismissing what Ernest Callenbach terms Roszak's
"call to arms for the aging but increasingly assertive boomers who
will transform America and the world," however, it is worth taking
the time to consider his argument. For his call comes with a new
twist: the real-life demographics and economics that may now make
many counterculture ideals not mere hopes but necessities for
survival. Few may presently wish to see America scale down and pull
back, and prioritize welfare over warfare, but they may find they
have little choice if they wish to avoid calamities beyond our
Roszak embeds his vision in one incontestable fact: As 77 million
baby boomers turn 65 between 2011 and 2030 and live far longer than
Americans ever have and birthrates continue to decline, seniors will
constitute an unprecedentedly high portion of the population. What he
calls the "longevity revolution" will see tens of millions of boomers
live into their 80s, 90s or beyond. (The 2008 Social Security
trustees' report puts male life expectancy at 82, female at 84, for
those who reach 65 in 2010.)
As they age, baby-boom seniors are likely to find themselves needing
increasing health care and living assistance to survivewhether in
family homes, cooperative senior housing arrangements or nursing homes.
Members of a shrinking younger generation facing increasing
unemployment and decreasing incomes, however, will find it difficult
to keep their parents and grandparents alive on their own. Increasing
numbers, especially women, are already shifting from raising kids to
caring for aging parents, often for far longer than their parents
spent raising them. Conservatives will claim that it is the job of
families, not government, to take care of their seniors. But many
families will find it impossible to care for both their children and
parents without societal help.
Even under today's probably unrealistic economic growth rate
projections, the problems are daunting.
Social Security, which had 100 workers per beneficiary at its
inception, has today a 3-to-1 ratio, which will become 2-to-1 by
2030. Its trustees estimate that $4.3 trillion in revenues will be
necessary to keep it solvent. Medicare is in even worse shape, as its
trustees recently reported: "The projected exhaustion of the HI
[Hospital Insurance] Trust Fund within the next eight years is an
urgent concern." Roszak also notes that many boomers failed to save
and/or have suffered major losses in retirement income as a result of
the collapse of the Internet and housing bubbles or cancellation of
promised company pensions. They will be hard-pressed to afford
$50,000 a year for living in a nursing homes or even to survive on
their Social Security payments. While keeping the present Social
Security and Medicare systems solvent is relatively simple, the
combination of all likely future senior needs will place
unprecedented pressure on the rest of society.
And this is true even in the unlikely event that America's economy
grows as expected, e.g. at the 2 percent "intermediate" annual GNP
growth rate upon which Social Security trustees base their current
The U.S. economy could stay stagnant or even shrink as current policy
bails out but fails to reform America's deeply corrupt financial
institutions, which continue the practices that nearly destroyed the
world economy in 2008; as it fails to develop a national economic
strategy to ensure that U.S.-owned companies lead in the renewable
energy and other cutting-edge industries of the future; as U.S.
creditors reduce their lending and, as recently reported, seek
alternatives to the dollar standard; and as the U.S. continues to
spend money it can no longer afford on war and its worldwide military
structure. The Obama administration's borrowing may restore some
short-term growth, but what will happen when these sky-high debts
become due and America cannot repay them?
Whatever America's future level of economic distress, it is clear
that the nation will have to make hard choices it has never faced
before. Medicare provides a clear example of what is involved. As
Roszak notes, "true, billions of dollars flow into Medicare every
year, but none of it is paid out to seniors. ... The Medicare program
should be seen as an income-transfer program that passes billions
into the hands of the country's richest class: physicians,
health-care entrepreneurs, and drug and insurance companies and their
When Medicare growth is capped, and "waste and fraud" is addressed,
the basic choice will be stark: maintain existing services to seniors
by cutting health provider income, or maintain their income by
cutting services and increasing the senior death rate. Similar
choices will have to be made in many other sectors of our economy and
society, affecting not only seniors but all those in need.
Roszak's hopes for meeting people's needs through "voluntary
simplicity" and legislated redistribution of wealth rest on three premises:
1. That boomers will fight for their benefits. "In the 1960s,
unruliness was located among the young. But as mature boomers claim
their entitlements, they will once again be in a position to grow
unruly. We may be in sight of a surprising display of elder
insurgency," he writes.
2. That non-seniors, unwilling to let their parents have lives that
are shorter than medical science permits, will support their
entitlements. "Can we imagine some political leader taking the
position that people are living too long?" Roszak says. He also hopes
that younger people will realize that what they do for their parents
today will be done for them tomorrow.
3. That boomers, rather than behaving as self-interested "greedy
geezers," will renew their youthful values and fight for rights for
everyone. "I have been arguing that the senior dominance that lies
ahead of us will shift values throughout the industrial societies in
ways that will encourage populations as a whole to demand the same
entitlements that the elders of society receive," he says.
This point is key because it seems obvious that an economically
strained workforce will have at best mixed feelings about supporting
benefits for seniors no matter how much the workers love their
parents or fear their own senior years. (He does not address the
thorny question of how many overstretched adult children will,
consciously or unconsciously, hope for their parents' passing so as
to gain an inheritance or home.) And conservatives have already begun
to develop a "Youth Strategy," similar to the right's 1960s "Southern
Strategy," that could well limit seniors' life-support systems.
Boomers may thus well need to build an intergenerational movement
fighting for entitlements for everyoneuniversal single-payer health
care, vastly extended unemployment insurance, income support for
those who cannot survive on their ownto achieve both their outer
needs and inner ideals.
For this to happen, Roszak argues, elders will need to develop a new
consciousness. He quotes Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn: "We must
act as the elders of the tribe, looking out for the best interests of
the future and preserving the precious compact between the generations."
He unfortunately does not explore the irony of this call, given that
much of their psychological energy in the '60s derived from boomers
feeling betrayed by their own eldersparticularly by being drafted
into an Indochina war that massively slaughtered innocents. The
"generation gap" was a major hallmark of the '60s, featuring rifts
between leaders and students, parents and children, and even an "Old"
and "New" Left. Can boomers without elder role models of their own
now serve as wise elders to their kids and grandkids? It will be
redemptive if they can, but the question is clearly still open.
In the end, Roszak's hope that aging can transform the individual and
his hope that it can transform society merge. Only as baby boomers
renew the idealism of their youth, he argues, will they be able to
create the materially poorer but spiritually richer America needed to
keep seniors alive and younger generations intact.
It is far too early to say whether boomers could succeed even if they
tried, however, because our current times have no historical
parallel. America has faced economic hard times before, but never in
a "late-capitalist" phase featuring huge and unpayable debts, an
unaffordable war machine, a burgeoning senior population and
biospheric crises which beggar the imagination.
Unprecedented problems produce unprecedented resolutions. It is as
easy to imagine an Orwellian future in which the rich and powerful
rely on police-state measures to protect their way of life as it is
to picture one marked by democracy, decency and peace.
All we can really know now is that by the time the last boomer turns
65 in 2030 America will have changed profoundly in ways we cannot
And one more thing.
If a socially just and democratic America that has helped preserve
the biosphere its young will need for life itself does emerge, it
will be largely because baby boomers did rise to the challenges of
their time and redeem the dreams of their youth.
Countercultural boomers may not ride again. But only if they do,
allying with their young, are they likely to see an America that they
will wish to pass on to those who will follow them.
Fred Branfman, the author of a number of books and the editor of
"Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War," exposed the
U.S. secret air war in Laos while living there from 1967 to 1971 and
went on to develop solar, educational and Information Age initiatives
for California Gov. Jerry Brown and national policymakers.