The new Old People
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.