Boomsday: Coming to a Theater Near You

“Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” — Psalm 71:9 ESV.

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” — Leviticus 19:32 ESV.

In Christopher Buckley’s 2007 novel Boomsday, a charismatic 20-something with a generational ax to grind and an ambitious politician pair up to campaign for government-sanctioned suicide of the “resource hogging” Baby Boomer generation.  The en masse retirement of Boomers threatens to sabotage the financial future of America’s working-age citizens.  Cast in the same take-no-prisoners, satirical vein as his novel-turned-blockbuster hit Thank You For Smoking, Boomsday addresses the very real, very imminent financial and demographic crisis facing America.

Writing for Real Clear Politics in 2007, columnist Robert Samuelson explained why Boomsday strikes such a chord with Boomers and Millennials alike:

Buckley’s comic tale revolves around two truths usually buried in our dreary budget debates.  First, a generational backlash is inevitable.  It may not come as attacks on sunbathing retirees, but the idea that younger workers will meekly bear the huge tax increases needed to pay all boomers’ promised benefits is delusional.  The increases are too steep, and too many boomers — fairly wealthy and healthy — will seem undeserving.

It’s certainly difficult to muster much sympathy for the retirement concerns of the Boomers with visions of “sunbathing retirees” dancing in our heads, but it’s worth considering the broader question of how society’s changing view of the elderly throughout the years has contributed to this Great Divide between generations.

There was a time, believe it or not, when the question of finding someone to support the needs of the elderly in their twilight years of life wasn’t a question at all, but a duty embraced by family and community.  Before the advent of the modern welfare state (and the corresponding shift from an extended family to a nuclear family model as the social norm), it was understood that aging relatives would be cared for by family, often with the support of community associations like churches or civic groups.  The elderly were not viewed as “burdens” or “resource hogs,” but rather as venerated members of the family – depositories of great wisdom to whom the highest respect and honor were owed.  Thus, the extra work required to support these elderly relatives was not considered extraordinary, unjust, or unfair.

Fast forward to the modern day, and it’s clear that our social attitudes about the elderly, even our own family members, has changed dramatically.  As mentioned earlier, various social, cultural, and technological developments over the last century have contributed to the abandonment of the extended family in favor of a focus on the nuclear.  Children rarely find themselves living in the same town as their parents and siblings, and once they start their own families, ties to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are limited by time and distance.  In an era of government entitlements, chief of which are Medicare and Social Security, there is no longer an emergent need for family to stick together in order to provide crucial material support for one another in times of need.  Most elderly people today live in their own homes, separated from their loved ones by hundreds of miles.  If Granny slips and falls in her bathtub or her kitchen, chances are it will be the friendly folks at Life Alert — not her own flesh and blood — who will come to her rescue.  One too many accidents, and Granny’s Medicare or Medicaid will pay to place her in a nursing home.

On top of the fact that our society has shifted the “burden” of eldercare from the family to the state, our culture has also changed the way we think about old age.  With each passing decade America has become more and more obsessed with youth and more and more terrified of death.  We spend billions of dollars a year on products and procedures guaranteed to roll back the clock, often at the expense of other health issues and often with the help of a credit card.  It’s no surprise, then, that we are less inclined to want to care for our aging relatives, who would otherwise remind us daily that no amount of money spent in pursuit of a youthful appearance can prevent the inevitable:  In the end, no one gets out alive.

America’s obsession with youth has another ugly consequence: an increasingly utilitarian attitude about life in general.  We have come to define the net worth of individuals solely in economic terms: What do we produce?  What can we afford to consume?  Do our assets exceed our liabilities?  Unfortunately, the costs — both financial and personal — of caring for an elderly relative don’t contribute much to the bottom line.  It’s a burden we have become unwilling to bear.

But bear the burden we will, whether we like it or not.  Without a robust family-centered culture to care for America’s elderly, the State will continue to expand its role in this arena.  And as the worker-to-retiree ratio continues to shrink, Uncle Sam will be forced to take more of our money to finance the rising costs of health care and other benefits for the elderly in America.  There’s no shortage of blame to go around for this situation, and as America continues to become a mass-geriatric society its doubtful that we can avoid the coming crisis that is “boomsday.”

The only remaining hope is that we as a society can learn from our mistakes, move away from our radical individualistic, self-centered mindset, and rediscover the great blessings — and great responsibilities — of true family.

Ken Connor

By

Ken Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society. An esteemed attorney, Connor is affiliated with the law firm of Marks, Balette, & Giessel, a firm nationally known for its successful representation of victims of nursing home abuse and neglect.

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  • SeanReynoldsNZ

    There is another possibility, and that is to recognise that retirement is not a right, but something that you can have when you can afford it. Add to that the fact that a lot of people don’t have children because they see children as undesirable financial burdens, and you get the fact that the root cause of the problem is that people expect someone elses kids to pay for their retirement.

    I have a solution to the problem. Get rid of pensions, except perhaps for those who served in the armed forces. If you have kids, then they can look after you in retirement. If you didn’t have kids, even if you wanted them but were infertile, it is not unreasonable to argue that you were capable of generating the financial resources you needed for retirement because you had the time and less financial outgoings, and thus had the opportunity to build the resources you need to retire. You are still responsible for your own life.

    I write this as a 30 year old with a young family, and a massive student loan that still needs to be paid back. I grew up in a society where the generation before mine got free (really taxpayer funded) education, and expects a generation that grew up on user pays to pay for them. I have more important responsibilities than looking after other people who didn’t want a family and don’t want to pay for their own retirement.

  • http://catholichawk.com PrairieHawk

    The retirement period is a time for husband and wife, if both are still living, to grow in love for each other, and for each to grow closer to God. It may not be strictly a “right” but I have a hard time separating the obligation to support our elders (an obligation which comes from the Fourth Commandment) from their entitlement to a period of time for rest from their life’s labors and for a deepening of their spiritual yearning for the God they are going soon to meet. I think a charitable society will make provisions for our elders to live out their full lives in peace and security. I’d say it’s the least we can do for them, and for God as well, to whom we owe the same duty we owe our elders.

  • cmacri

    Isn’t every phase of marriage a time to grow in love for each other and closer to God? As parents of a large family, we have come to accept the fact that we will probably have to work until no longer able for physical or medical reasons. At the same time, we are teaching our children by both word and example that they have a responsibility to provide hands-on care to aging parents and relatives. We have siblings, who, for reasons not necessarily of their choosing, will end up without any support system except their nieces and nephews. Fortunately, with a large family, it is reasonable to expect that there will be a close relative to step up to plate and help out – especially if they have been taught that this is their responsibility all along.

  • goral

    We are a forward looking society. There are economic and technological benefits of that. For these reasons we are very mindful of opportunity, cost and efficiency. The elderly do not fit very well into our economic model.

    Let’s face it, they/we are very demanding and taxing on the healthcare system as one must expect. The elderly, for the most part, are also a drag on the economy.
    They spend most of their money on service oriented industry, certainly not the wealth of the nation. In addition, so many waste money on gambling and other frivolous entertainment. There are bumper stickers that brag about “spending
    the kids’ inheritance”.

    The problem with the elderly is one of the curses of affluence. It’s here to stay and it will only be exasperated by a productive workforce that is shrinking.
    The picture is not good for those of us who are close to being labeled with the “elderly” term.

    The good news is that the curse will be reversed as our society is economically
    weaker and the elderly will be forced to help their younger members who in turn will return the favor and care for their/our aging needs.

    The Good Shepherd does not abandon His flock to the wolves.

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