Is it Ageism or are Pensioners Really Smug Escapists

In economic hard times and an ever changing economy, older Americans are becoming increasingly paranoid about being let go or bought out by their employers—for the sake of raising the bar, let’s just call it the Willy Loman syndrome

Older full-time employees are often a high needs group in spite of the experience they bring to a workplace. Our salaries are often at the prime-rib level, our equity loans more numerous to pay for children’s colleges, our medical needs more extensive and expensive than they were when we were in our twenties.

Our not-paid-off mortgages are often static because of the equity loans and because the 20th year on a 30 year mortgage doesn’t mean much when the real-estate crisis continues to eat away at the “real” value of our homes—another nest egg abandoned. And we continue to take on the added health-and-care crises of our aging parents, making us the new sandwich generation on the block and more susceptible to new family traumas.

National newspapers and online news stories are full of anecdotes of people in their fifties and sixties losing their jobs in America and many older pre-Social Security Americans are now on the unemployment lines. The chances of these Americans ever landing a job similar to the one they left are close to zero given the competition in the marketplace for the new jobs.

Who’s going to hire an older, used-car-of-an-employee when a company can hire a fresh-out-of-college student? Let’s face it, experience begins to lose its luster when an employer finds out that the older job-seeker once had a salary of 60k, plus benefits.

One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to imagine the questions spinning around in an employer’s head—why would this employee not feel diminished working at our company? How will he/she fit in with my young staff? Why in God’s name is this person even applying for this job? I wonder just how competent this person really is if he/she lost such a lucrative job?

On the other hand, the Social Security and Medicare crowd are also beginning to feel another kind of prejudice, the growing anger against what a North Korean bureaucrat referred to as the “pensioner” (you may recall that he used the phrase in characterizing what Hillary Clinton’s public persona was beginning to look like to him—to be fair, he was lashing out at her after she made a patronizing analogy between North Korea’s leader and a child who needed a good, old fashioned scolding).

Pensioner, to many Americans, is the man/woman now experiencing the good life of the golden ager—the snowbird Florida crowd taking quiet walks along beaches, waiting securely for their monthly annuity and Social Security checks, reading books, going to plays, quickly scurrying to get their Metropolitan Opera simulcast season’s tickets, joining book clubs, playing bridge, driving hooded miniature electric cars on golf courses, taking long Amtrak cross-country treks, making one last trip to Venice, hiding out in a southern-state retirement gated community.

The retiree in America, although a wished-for icon to many Americans, is quietly being seen as a lucky dude who just happened to retire in the right place at the right time—a golden-age time of strong unions, long vacation leaves, grievance procedures, job security, fully paid post-retirement health insurance policies after fifteen or twenty years, automatic pay increases, elective overtime.

On the other hand, I am unabashedly grateful for having worked in the golden age of worker benefits. We were indeed a lucky lot when we retired and had our retirement health insurance premiums completely subsidized by our employers, a benefit, of course, that could go tomorrow if the current trends continue.

I am convinced that the recent recession and the national unemployment figures have added to my unease about feeling senior-privileged when so many in the culture have lost their jobs, don’t have strong unions, have enormous medical bills that have lead to bankruptcies, and have nothing solid to look forward to except the arbitrary and floating world of constant job and career changes.

I am also beginning to sink into the well of my own resentments at my retirement-peers who have chosen to slow down and smell the roses, those risk-averse gray-haired travelers who would rather hang out on a cruise ship than develop more intimate relationships or to immerse themselves in the vertical world of going down deeper into their psyches with activities that would be more psychologically transformative, not that any of these experiences have to be mutually exclusive.

Having said all that, I still get the strong feeling among many seniors that they want to pack it all in, suck up the marrow of one more tour before the grim reaper does his duty—anything to avoid self-reflection and the pursuit of the inner life. And there are moments that I believe many seniors are becoming nothing more than old-age, bourgeois flâneurs (strollers), having nothing more to do than just window-shop their way through life (this is the most negative connotation of the word pensioner—a character who strolls and window shops).

I remember my father’s obsession for traveling after his retirement, his cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof way of trying to exteriorize his happiness, to run frantically into one more change-of-geographical venue as he pursued the magic-bullet-of-another-vacation that would clear the deck of all his previous tourist spots, annihilate them into irrelevance for the final big-bang vacation-spot-of-all-vacation-spots, like an addict in search of the great orgasmic hit that would wipe the slate clean.

I used to think I thought that the older one gets, the wiser they get. I have come to the conclusion that many seniors, like so many Americans, have just accumulated experiences. They have lived their lives horizontally, oftentimes, just by showing up. And if you show up enough times, something new is bound to happen, no matter what you do to avoid it.

In any event, there is nothing in American culture that even suggests that older means wiser. There is no “Moses” or wise-old-shaman images that would even come close to the classic Asian respect for the elderly (and this too is changing now that China is quickly moving into a capitalistic culture).

If anything, older in the U.S. generally means “more care,” or “what-are-we-going-to-do-with-mom-when-she-can’t-take-of-herself.” Ship her off to a nursing home seems to be the only choice of inevitabilities in this culture.

So here I am, looking at the pre-Social Security older employees and feeling this ugly feeling in my gut about the tragedy of this group that just missed that golden time of security in our country when you could be employed for thirty years in the same job.

And then I am brought back to the reality that the culture does not encourage wisdom as much as it does flexibility in acquiring more experiences. And, sadly, I realize that the senior stage in America may be nothing more than a chronological extension of the prevalent values in the culture. And those values, simply put, are to just wait for another experience and hope it’s better than the last one.

I encourage those who have had other “senior” moment experiences. Maybe you can soften my cynicism. “Barkus is willin’,” as the old saying goes.

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One Response to Is it Ageism or are Pensioners Really Smug Escapists

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