Are We Old Enough Yet?August 13th, 2009

The people who sell health insurance and drugs have been deploying paid hacks like the ex-governor of Alaska to convince the public that national health insurance will result in the extermination of the nation’s senior citizens. It’s a preposterous claim and typical of the kind of disinformation big business routinely dispenses to influence public policy. National health insurance won’t lead to euthanasia, but other social forces might. If you’re a “baby boomer,” born during the twenty years following World War II, you might someday have to answer for the catastrophic injury to the earth that occurred on your watch. The question, “Haven’t you lived long enough?” might well come up. We may see a time when surviving to 100 is not considered a good thing.

It’s a fact that most of us are not producing much by age 60 or so and are net consumers for the remainder of our lives. By 80, most of us are dependent on others for day-to-day assistance, and many of us are sick or demented and unable to function without skilled nursing or medical care. Twenty years from now, on my 84th birthday, climate change and chronic water shortages will put extreme pressure on food supples, even as population growth swells demand. Malnutrition could become as common in the USA as consumer debt is today. The peers of my grandchildren will almost certainly be asking whether it’s right that the people who despoiled the earth and caused the famine should continue to receive sustenance.

In the days when elders were wise, respect came with advanced age. Those days are gone. The elders of tomorrow will be regarded as a lazy, pampered, wasteful, complacent and violent lot, who sold out their country and trashed the world. The rich ones are likely to be separated from their property by their offspring, even as the rest of us exhaust our resources to survive. Once the over-70 crowd is reduced to poverty, it’s a short step to ending it all. If you doubt this, visit the nearest nursing home. Have a peek at the quality of life you can expect when you’re dependent on others for everything. Suicide will become a sacrament. On Grandparents’ Day, couples will coo to each other over the gifts and greeting cards that arrive from their heirs: “Look, Mother, it’s that Oregon vacation we’ve been dreaming about!”

The “sanctity of life” to which so many now pay lip service will yield to a new, Malthusian ethic. “What goes around,” people will say, “eventually runs out.” We might continue to allocate resources according to who succeeds in war and commerce, but war takes the young, commerce favors the old, and 21st Century youth don’t care to shed blood or go hungry for their elders, as earlier generations have done. In the old days, seniors had the decency to die while they were still able to hold a spoon. Today we live to 80, 90 and beyond, and servants have to be employed to keep us from soiling ourselves. The new generation might not be so willing to sacrifice its kids so that geezers can continue to defecate.