[Editor’s Note] Below is a post from the latest issue of Age Beat Online (ABO), an e-newsletter for the Journalists Exchange on Aging, which is an excellent network supported by the American Society on Aging. This post is longer than usual, but all our Baby Boomer readers will appreciate ABO Editor Paul Kleyman’s rant.
NPR AND THE EDDIE HASKELL FACTOR: Remember Eddie Haskell, Wally’s selfish and conniving buddy on “Leave It to Beaver”? Nobody liked that phony. One would think that at least some in today’s national media would equate the boomer generation more with the Beav: bright, open, curious. But the boomer bashing that continues in mainstream media — some of it purposeful attacks from those wishing to slash entitlement programs for elders, but much of it gratuitous — seems to frame the boomers as the Eddie Haskell of generations. RODNEY DANGERFIELD got more respect.
(Eddie Haskell, The Beaver and Wally)
A case in point is JOHN YDSTIE’S piece on NPR’s “Morning Edition” this Wednesday (Jan. 2) titled “Baby Boomers Begin to Claim Social Security”. Ydstie, a usually fine reporter and fill-in anchor, starts, “America’s baby boomers have always thought they were special.” Later, “The culture of their youth still lingers in the air.” (That’s the “they’ll never grow up” cliché that’s become so prevalent.) Later still, “Baby boomers have always lived in denial of growing old. Age 62 is the new 50, right? Except that now you are eligible for a Social Security check.” And in discussing the small size of Gen X, which will yield a demolished workforce charged with covering Social Security’s ongoing costs, Ydstie opines, “Of course, that’s the baby boomers’ fault. They had fewer children.” Funny, this boomer remembers being told — especially by Paul Erlich, a member of the older Silent Generation — that having too many babies was irresponsible and would set off “The Population Bomb.”
What’s odd about Ydstie’s piece is that these smarmy asides were unnecessary. In a 7½ minute piece, a major story for broadcast, he gets most of his overview of Social Security right. Ydstie does fall into the usual trap of citing the shrinking ratio of workers to pay for the retirement of the aging boomers, a figure widely quoted but almost always misused, but he does not go on, as so many have, to declare that Social Security will be bankrupt and is in crisis. These outright fabrications were fed to the public through a largely unskeptical Washington press corps that had been cultivated by conservative think tanks since the early 1980s. Now it’s refreshing to see other sources cited to balance such claims.
Ydstie includes quotes by the venerable liberal economist HENRY AARON of the Brookings Institution and conservative ALAN VIARD of the American Enterprise Institute both agreeing that Social Security does not warrant, as Aaron put it, “a hysterical sense of urgency” and that Medicare is in a much more precarious financial state. (Ydstie didn’t quite get to the larger concern that Medicare and Medicaid are in trouble because of wider healthcare inflation, but his report is an improvement on past reporting.) At least on the issue of the shrinking fertility rate he didn’t cite rightist economists who have said — I kid you not — that young women today should show their patriotism by having more babies, unlike their irresponsible, bra-burning mothers of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
So, what’s with the nasty slams, the pseudo-psycho profiling of the selfish boomers? Is it just too cute to pass up a two-buck chuckle and doesn’t really seem to hurt anyone? Problem is that these kinds of group slurs are expressions of — dare I say it — prejudice. ABO has cited more vicious examples, notably Christopher Buckley’s novel “Boomsday,” a laugh-filled promotion of the idea that boomers will drain our children’s future — and should have an assisted-suicide option for those presumed noble enough not to collect Social Security benefits.
I guess one shouldn’t expect too much originality around national newsrooms, but there is an alternative view: that an older population in which both men and women are healthier, well educated and widely experienced can be a boon to society. Ydstie does note that a longer-working population of elders can do much to close the current projections of Social Security’s 75-year shortfall. But reporters might also talk to someone like THEODORE ROSZAK, author of the 2002 book “Longevity Revolution: When Boomers Become Elders” (Berkeley Books). The historian, whose 1968 classic “The Making of a Counter Culture” added that coinage to the language, posits that older societies have always been wiser, kinder and gentler. There are others we could mention (Bob Butler for one) who can argue pretty convincingly that widespread longevity is not such a bad thing. Or reporters could note that most of the economic problems attributed to spendthrift, “me-generation” boomers have to do with poor management of the national economy. A couple of wars, some tax cuts for the rich, a subprime mortgage debacle, failure to control healthcare costs for the rich, and pretty soon you’re talking about a real crisis. Oh-oh.
But what about this seeming urge to psychologize about the alleged profligacy of an entire generation as if it were one character — named Eddie Haskell. Even TOM BROWKAW has indulged in some of this couch-jockeying in recent interviews about his new book, “Boom: Voices of the Sixties” (New York City: Random House, 2007.) The characterization seems to spread through news copy like a virus.
A few real facts can be said about the boomer generation in the United States:
* At around 78 million, they are the biggest generation in history.
* The GI bill gave them better-educated parents and a large middle class, so they grew up with a higher standard of living than ever before.
* Universal compulsory education, still only a few decades old by 1946, accelerated after World War II for both boys and girls.
* The pill.
* The diversity of the boomers presents an enormous demographic range for analysis.
* Boomers have more living parents than any previous middle-aged population in history.
* And boomers have the benefit of the longevity revolution in science, technology and social organization.
I’m sure ABO readers can think of a few other incontrovertible and consequential facts. In the meantime, though, I can assure Mr. Ydstie that 62 is the new 62. And that’s something worth celebrating: some aches and pains aside—not something to complain about.
By the way, for a well-balanced treatment of Social Security, see “Fears of Social Security’s Collapse Unfounded, Experts Say,” by BOB MOOS in the Dallas Morning News (Dec. 11, 2007).
Reprinted with permission from Age Beat Online, e-news of the Journalists Exchange on Aging, www.asaging.org/agebeat, copyright JEOA 2007