It wasn't supposed to be like this. Until the late 19th century, most Americans who reached their sunset years expected to keep working until they dropped. Both private businesses and government offices had a small contingent of workers in their 70s and 80s, going about whatever tasks they were still capable of doing. The idea of retirement rode in with the after-effects of the industrial revolution and the burgeoning immigration that followed, when workers outnumbered jobs.
In 1905, a valedictory address by William Osler at Johns Hopkins University provoked a storm of protest when the doctor spoke of the "uselessness of men above 40" and recommended mandatory retirement. But it wasn't long before efficiency experts and employers were seconding Osler's proposal, and the institution of Social Security in 1940 reinforced the idea of retirement on a pension. By the end of that decade, with young men returning from World War II and flooding the job market, retirement began to be actively marketed among the grandparent set: a time of leisure to pursue those hobbies and read those books and travel to those places that a regular work schedule precluded.
Social Security is so deeply entrenched by now that no potential presidential candidate is supposed to say a word against it. Still, as we're being warned pretty much continually, the demographic is shifting: The older baby boomers who began retiring last year are likely to live at least 20 more years, consuming resources (especially medical care) that they no longer produce.
But here's another striking fact about what we used to call the generation gap: The difference between the average net worth of a household headed by seniors (65 and older), compared to a household headed by adults 35 or younger, has more than doubled in the last 25 years. A senior household worth $120,457 in 1984 is now worth $170,494 (adjusted for inflation). But the net worth of a junior household has shrunk, from $11,521 to just $3,662. Instead of a generation gap we're in the middle of a ballooning geezer gap.
The upper numbers aren't as troubling as the lower ones. Young people are clearly struggling, partly because of careless attitudes about amassing debt-such as college loans amounting to the cost of an average home even before they've earned any money. But also because of a teetering jobs market, with wages headed in the wrong direction. Whereas the soon-to-be geezers (I speak affectionately, as one of them) have reaped the benefit of low-interest loans and an expanding economy, their home values went down like everybody else's when real estate collapsed, but that doesn't hurt so much when the property is paid off.
Older Americans have another huge advantage over the youngsters: They vote. And, as a voting bloc, they show little willingness to give up any of their retirement perks. "I worked for this" is an argument that carries considerable weight, especially with them. They won't settle for raising the retirement age or lowering benefits without a fight.
When the prophet Isaiah told King Hezekiah that his royal house would fall and his sons yet-unborn would be eunuchs in the palace of Babylon, he muttered an Amen. "For he thought, 'Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?'" (2 Kings 20:19) He may not have been as callous or heartless as he sounds; perhaps he simply could not picture his glittering treasury ransacked and young men he didn't know dragged away to ignominious captivity. It's doubtful that today's retirees can picture such ruin either, or else they wish away worst-case scenarios.
"Peace and security in our days" could stand for the motto of any generation. But if trends continue, the motto of the tomorrow's youth may be a lot more bellicose. Race and class warfare is bad enough; generational warfare is truly ugly.