The new Old People

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on September 8, 2009
U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich, (b. 1926) is confronted at lectern by a younger Old Guy

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich, age 83, is confronted by younger Old Guy Mike Sola, age 64.

Something that’s been lost in the current debate over health-care reform is what I see as a qualitative change in our expectations about the public behavior of Old People.

The accompanying photo is a screen grab from FoxNews from a confrontation at a town hall in Michigan held by U.S. Rep. John Dingell. I think it perfectly encapsulates what I’m thinking about how Old People have changed so much.

Dingell is the old guy behind the lectern. He was born in 1926 and is now 83 years old. The old guy in the blue, short-sleeved shirt is Mike Sola. According to news reports, Sola is 64 years old — meaning he was born sometime around 1945. During the meeting, he wheeled his cerebral-palsy-stricken son right up to the front of the room to shout down everyone else, confront Dingell and demand answers to questions about how health-care reform would specifically affect his son’s coverage. Sola got away with that kind of behavior largely because of the deference that is implicitly owed to him as “an old guy.” The meeting was disrupted, and after Dingell ordered Sola to go sit back down, the resulting clip achieved YouTube immortality and Sola was predictably cheered by many on the right as a “patriot.”

What’s interesting to me about such confrontations is not so much their substance or who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ but the fact that they even occur at all. I can’t recall seeing very many people in their 60s act this way in public back when I was a kid. Most of them would have viewed such behavior as silly or beneath their dignity. In fact, even the people at these town halls who are a bit younger than Sola — grownups who appear to be in their 40s and 50s but on their way to being old — have been conducting themselves in ways that seem fairly new and unusual for their age groups. They look almost like hooting and hollering teenagers at some high-school-assembly gone horribly wrong. Yet we seem to indulge this behavior and lend credence to it for no other reason than because lots of these folks are old or getting old. They’re certainly not a bunch of “radical kids.” But what’s up with this behavior? When did all of this become acceptable?

Even more interesting to me is the meaning that is routinely extracted from such uproar by the news media. I think the American media reflexively use video footage of old (and usually white) people such as Sola to convey a quaint-but-imaginary concept of an almost monolithic  “Mom-and-Pop America” from days gone by. In a subliminal way, anyone with gray or white hair, wrinkled skin or stooped shoulders is used on television to represent the ideas of old-fashioned patriotism, traditional American values, honesty, integrity, grassroots wisdom, what have you. And the implication is that if a handful of people like that are so visibly upset, it must be true that the monolithic category they supposedly represent is equally upset, en masse.  And so we are led to believe that there must be something going horribly wrong with This Great Country Of Ours.

Until the past decade or so, that interpretation might have made more sense. Until recently, our Old People mostly belonged to the so-called “Greatest Generation.” They were members of a predominantly white society who had lived through the Great Depression, had come together to propel the United States to victory in World War II and had then built our prosperous post-war economy. Sure, that particular generation had plenty of flaws of its own — racism, sexism, social exclusion, etc. And it also encompassed a wide spectrum of political viewpoints ranging from the liberal to the conservative. But in a broader sense, just being a member of that generation went a long way toward overshadowing the internal political differences. It was like belonging to a club. It implied a shared history that automatically brought a baseline of civility to public debate, and encouraged some degree of respect for other points of view even if you happened to disagree with the people expressing them. Patriotism really wasn’t seen as a mere byproduct of longevity. It had more to do with what everyone  had been through together. Everyone in that generation was assumed to be a patriot, really — except those among that tiny fraction of suspected commies whose names all fit on that infamous list in Joe McCarthy’s coat pocket in the 1950s. So there was never any real reason for Old People to carry on in public the way they do now. If they had, it really would have been big news.

Now all of that has changed. The Greatest Generation is slowly dying off, and lots of those still alive are too sick or immobile to even show up at town halls. The new Old People who have replaced them might as well be from a different cultural planet.  Americans born in 1940 or thereafter — in other words, folks now reaching the age of 70 — grew up in the age of Rock and Roll rebellion and cultural division. The wartime babies were followed by the so-called “Baby Boomers” born from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, who were in turn followed by Generations X,Y and Z, or whatever letter it is that we’re on now. I don’t think any of these new, up-and-coming generations of Old People can really be used to represent any single idea like their Greatest Generation counterparts so handily did. Still the media persist in forcing them into the simple, old stereotypes to represent quaint ideas. The coverage extrapolates broad meaning from the conduct of a relative few.

Think about it: People born in 1941 are all turning 68 this year. But what overarching idea do they and others of their generation represent when they fill the chairs at a town hall meeting, circa 2009? I don’t think they represent any single thing at all, certainly nothing you could call “mainstream America” (whatever that’s supposed to be). Some of them might strongly identify with Dick Cheney (DOB 1-30-41). Another big chunk might feel more kinship with Bob Dylan (DOB 5-24-41).  The rest are anywhere in between. But in the reductionist eye of the camera lens, such distinctions do not show up. As far as the camera is concerned, they’re all just  “old folks who must obviously be patriots and who therefore must know what’s right for America.”

The reality is far more complex. Even the most senior members among the new crop of Old People were schooled in the arts of protest and public confrontation as acceptable forms of social discourse. Division and discord are waters they have been swimming in all their lives, whether they were going with this current or against that one. When Jerry Rubin famously warned America’s youth not to trust anyone over 30, Mike Sola wasn’t even 25 yet. People his age grew up in a society that was ripped apart by successive issues ranging from civil rights, to the Vietnam War, to equal rights for women, to Watergate, the Reagan Revolution, the Clinton impeachment and now the War on Terror and the supposedly socialist agenda of the Obama Administration. That was different than growing old in a society ruled by a class of adults who were (mostly) unified by economic calamity and war. The main commonality the postwar generations really share in is their membership in a voracious consumer society. It seems far easier and more natural now for everyone — even Old People — to ditch the baseline of civility and turn upon one another like wild jackals when necessary.

So when they get mad and carry on, I don’t think it means much of anything at all beyond various expressions of relatively narrow self-interests.  I think they’re just the new Old People disguised as the old Old People.

COMING UP: More stuff about Old People, and maybe even further reflections on Dick Cheney vs. Bob Dylan.


13 Responses

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  1. Ann Hellmuth said, on September 8, 2009 at 7:14 am

    Born in 1938, I’m trying to work out what I am… old Old or old new Old. Another great piece to start to day. This really makes one think.

  2. Flatus said, on September 8, 2009 at 8:50 am

    In the comment just before mine, Ann asks which generation she’s a part of. Here’s the questions I would ask when testing where she belongs:
    – Did you cut both ends off tin cans then squash them for recycling?
    – Did you go to the ration board with your Mom to pick your monthly ration book?
    – Was margarine white with a little coloring ‘dot’ that you had to mix into it?
    – Did you go through the house looking for old, unused keys that could be recycled?
    – Do you remember the air raid warden patrolling your street?
    – Did your family car, if your were lucky enough to have one, have a gas sticker on the back window?
    – Was your Dad overseas with your uncles?
    – Do you know what V-J Day is?

    The people who relate to these questions are the old Old People.

    I was a city commissioner in one of the small communities around St Pete. The median age in the city was 72. We had more people over 90 than under 19. In our town, the young old would host ‘social’ events where they would promote their own agendas to the old Old. This was often done by playing to their fears. It was manipulative and unfair. That’s what the opponents of the Public Option are doing this year. Shame on them.

  3. Barbara Hill Bissonnette said, on September 8, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Great piece, Sean. I’ve noticed something about those who have reached certain birthdays — they have no sense of self-censorship. It’s something we learn, I’d say, in our 20s, that it’s just not a good idea to say-out-loud everything that comes into ones brain. Then there’s a point in older-age (I think perhaps it varies) — where people just don’t care anymore.. they don’t care about hurting someone else’s feelings, they don’t care about saving the arguments for something that really matters. My father is 92, and somewhere along the line in his 80s, he just stopped censoring himself. At breakfast, when my dad wants his coffee refilled, he waves his cup around. He makes rather disparaging remarks about others (“he looks weird”) when out in public. It can be rather comical, but my point is, 10 years ago he would have kept such statements to himself, or perhaps WHISPERED them. I think perhaps, the closer one gets to ‘the end,’ the more one thinks “awww &$*# it! I’ll say what I want!”

  4. Colorado Bob said, on September 8, 2009 at 11:30 am

    Nail meet hammer.

  5. RebelliousRenee said, on September 8, 2009 at 11:39 am

    Yeah…. various expressions of relatively narrow self-related interests…. it’s basic human behavior, IMO. Going all the way back to when Ug and Ugette climbed out of the primordial ooze.

  6. Jamie said, on September 8, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    The pollsters keep trying to put me in a cohort that doesn’t fit. I simply don’t understand the way these people think.

  7. Colorado Bob said, on September 8, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Funny little things file –

    1900 Claude D Pepper (Rep-D-Fla), old people’s advocate

    What would Claude do ?

  8. Ann Hellmuth said, on September 8, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Couldn’t resist doing the test….

    – Did you cut both ends off tin cans then squash them for recycling? NO. WE HARDLY EVER HAD TIN CANS.
    – Did you go to the ration board with your Mom to pick your monthly ration book? I QUEUED WITH MY MUM TO GET MY GREEN RATION BOOK. I GOT EXTRA CLOTHING COUPONS BECAUSE I HAD BIG FEET.
    – Was margarine white with a little coloring ‘dot’ that you had to mix into it? NO. WE ONLY GOT ABOUT A STICK OF MARGARINE FOR THE FAMILY FOR A WEEK.
    – Did you go through the house looking for old, unused keys that could be recycled? NO. WE KNITTED FOR VICTORY BY UNWINDING OLD SWEATERS TO MAKE GLOVES AND SCARVES FOR THE TROOPS.

    – Do you remember the air raid warden patrolling your street? YES. WE HAD BLACKOUT. A GLIMMER OF LIGHT WOULD BRING THE HOME GUARD TO THE HOUSE.
    – Did your family car, if your were lucky enough to have one, have a gas sticker on the back window? DIDN’T KNOW ANYONE WITH A CAR.
    – Was your Dad overseas with your uncles? MY DAD WORKED IN ARMAMENTS FACTORY
    – Do you know what V-J Day is? VICTORY IN JAPAN

    OK, I confess. I grew up in England.

  9. Kelly J Fent said, on September 8, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Your words of wisdom make me even more thankful to still have my mother, 85, to turn to when I need advice on matters that truly matter. A card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation, she is the soundest of sounding boards. As long as the question doesn’t deal with new-fangled technology, I know her answer will come from an extremely deep well of knowledge and experience.

    She and I both love you – Kelly

  10. Flatus said, on September 8, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    “OK, I confess. I grew up in England.”

    Having been stationed there, I feel fully qualified in making adjustments to your score. Let’s see. Pauses for a few moments. Congratulations, you are old Old!

  11. Carolyn said, on September 8, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Oh Sean, I am just trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I must be part of the old people, whether the old old people or the new old people. How did that happen? Guess, this means I think it really is just about me.

  12. Kelly J Fent said, on September 8, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    My mother wanted me to let you know she dearly loved this post. She feels honored to be one of the legitimate old Old People – and will let it be known to all with great pride.

    Kelly – on behalf of Jeanne Alston

  13. Lila said, on September 9, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Wow, I hadn’t thought of that. I guess all grey hair isn’t the same. (They also didn’t have “news” available 24/7 and probably less spin to incite them.)

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