RALL: Here's to the New Ageism

I was probably naive, but until a few years ago I believed that the term "ageism" referred to discrimination against young people. After all, senior citizens get all the breaks that society has to offer -- Social Security, Medicare, 5 percent discounts, the best seats on the bus -- while young people get drafted, pay higher taxes and are routinely gouged on car insurance. Who in their right mind would think that geezers are getting the shaft?Many Americans are trapped in a decades-old paradigm, believing that they still live in a 1970s-era youth culture when the newspapers were full of grim photos of grannies noshing on cat food while twentysomething hippies gave themselves to free love in the streets. In fact, in the last thirty years the poverty rate for senior citizens has dropped from 29 to 11 percent. And in 1993 the median net worth of households aged 70 to 74 was $96,000--compared to $5,786 for Americans aged 18 to 35. People over 65 are only 13 percent of the population, but own 18 percent of the nation's property.Nowadays children are more than twice as likely than seniors to be poor, and the share of national income used up by the varicose-vein-and-spotted-liver set is disproportionally high. Young adults are losing 14.3 percent of their incomes in payroll deductions to finance cost-of-living increases for Social Security -- a program that won't be around for them to collect upon when they retire from jobs without pensions or sufficient salaries to allow them to build savings. In an economic climate in which raises aren't even given during a labor shortage, the only ones who get to keep up with inflation are a group of people that produce absolutely nothing: retirees.Members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) might consider using their formidable political clout to lobby for their grandchildren who are the country's future. Instead, our nation's elderly greedheads shriek in horror from Phoenix to Miami whenever a politician proposes limiting Medicare to those who can't afford to pay for their own health expenses. Time after time requests for property tax increases to fund increased education spending fail due to the senior vote. This, from a bunch to which some banks even offer higher interest rates once they hit 55! Yeah, growing old is real tough.Previous generations of elderly Americans could rightfully claim that they deserved to be coddled in their old age after surviving the ardors of the Depression and fighting in World War II. But few of today's elderly are old enough to remember the Depression, and even fewer fought Hitler and Tojo. (You'd have to be at least 70 to have fought in World War II.) Far from owing anything to the average 65-year-old, America has blessed such citizens with a series of New Deal and Johnson-era programs, as well as a continuously booming economy as they came of age during the postwar period. The fact that we're driving up the deficit to throw more money at these spoiled old brats is simply obscene.It's not too late for Americans to declare war against the cult of old age. Here are some suggestions for reestablishing an equilibrium between the young and the old:Income-Based Social Security: Social Security payments have surpassed national defense as the single biggest portion of the federal budget. But it's time to save the Social Security program by denying payments to anyone with a high income or a large number of assets.Make Medicare Universal: Medicare presupposes that only old people need medical care. As a result, fewer than 1 percent of people over 65 have to go without health insurance, while 15 percent of the overall population has no coverage whatsoever. Moreover, even those with coverage rely on HMOs that collect premiums but never pay out. Granting decent care to 66-year-olds while denying it to 33-year-olds is ludicrous and unjustifiable. Medicare should either be extended to Americans of all ages or done away with -- ageism in the guise of compassion shouldn't be tolerated.Eliminate the Senior Bonus: How can Americans claim to support equality and fairness when it gives its richest citizens over 65 half-price subway tickets, discount mortgages and special tax deductions? While special considerations based on infirmity, like special seats on mass transit, make sense, financial advantages for the aged come directly out of everyone else's pockets and ought to be trashed.Eliminate Day-to-Day Discrimination: Similarly, why do we tolerate car-rental companies who won't rent to people under 25--although they've been driving nine years? And if people can vote for the leader of the free world at the age of 18, shouldn't they be allowed to watch the election results with a beer before age 21? Why should 16-year-olds be allowed to watch gruesome scenes of mass murder on film, but have to wait until 18 to see human beings having sex on film? A truly free country would eliminate all of these arbitrary age distinctions.Equal Opportunity for the Young: Discrimination against human beings for being young is just as reprehensible as bias against the old. Our civil-rights laws should be amended to ban any form of age-related bias, whether it's a housing development that ban children or an employer that passes up worthy Gen Xers for promotions. Speaking of which, it's time to let people under 35 run for president -- Ronald Reagan provided ample proof that experience doesn't make for competent leadership.As the average age of Americans continues to increase due to medical advances and demographics, young people will continue to lose what little political influence they now enjoy. But it's wrong to sacrifice the aspirations of the newest citizens to the selfish desires of crotchety old men and women to save a few dollars on their taxes. Moreover, generational warfare hurts no one more than the aged, whose last memory on earth need not be of pissed-off youngsters tossing bricks through their windows. We already have plenty of problems with systematic racism. Unless we correct the true ageism in our society, we'll end up with an America that looks like England: hopeless, joyless and hateful.

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