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American Voices: Jon Meacham on our obligation to the elderly

I’ve been accused of being old before my time more than once. It’s true that I’ve always felt an affinity for, and been comfortable around, older people. I attribute this to a childhood spent around my grandparents — and even a great-grandparent or two. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

 Part of what I loved — and love — about being around older people is the tangible sense of history they embody. I’m interested in military history, for instance, because both my grandfathers fought in World War II. I’m interested in writing because one of those grandfathers wrote books. I am a happy man today, doing work I love, because of older relatives, teachers, and friends who took the trouble to take an interest in me. I owe them debts I cannot possibly repay.

The question of generational obligation between the old and the young and the young and the old is always fraught. If you doubt it, there’s a play called “King Lear” you should see.

For America to put its fiscal and political matters in order, we know there will have to be a reckoning over the costs of social insurance. What we don’t know right now is how we are going to address these looming shortfalls.

I am a huge admirer of Franklin Roosevelt’s, and I believe social security has done untold good in alleviating the once-widespread issue of poverty among the elderly. FDR believed in the greatness and generosity of Americans — but he was also a cold-blooded politician.

So it’s worth thinking about what he might think about our current conundrum. Older people are politically powerful: they vote and they agitate and officeholders pay attention to them. And politicians today don’t want to anger the voters of today in the service of tomorrow, which is where I think FDR’s spirit of compromise might serve us well. Gradual but real changes in benefits that move us toward a more sustainable future is the wise thing to do. But if older Americans do not embrace reform, it will not happen. There is irony in the fact that the oldest among us may have to take the lead in securing the world that the youngest among us will live in.

When I think back on what my own grandparents gave me, I think they knew, at some level, that they were investing in me. When it’s my turn, I hope I’ll be even half as generous. That’s at least one way to pay down my debts to them. So here’s hoping older people who are themselves embodiments of history will see that history calls them to think of today and of tomorrow, even if everybody else is mired in the here and now.