Jon McCabe: Elder status too often wasted on the old

  • This undated handout photo provided by shows a reef slope densely covered by soft corals in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. AP Photo/Keoki Stender,

Published: 9/26/2019 5:23:31 PM

The story of humankind has always included a narrative of our elders as guardians of culture and tradition, and also as stewards of the community who ensure prosperity for the next and future generations.

The role of older people, socially and politically, can only be expected to grow in coming decades. According to a recent Pew Research study, a global “middle age demographic bulge,” combined with longer life expectancy, will lead to a tripling of the senior population across the globe by 2050.

“The result will be a much older world,” says Pew.

In countries across Asia and much of Europe, high percentages of those surveyed say the growing number of older people is “a major problem.” The driving concern behind these attitudes is projected income support and health care cost increases for the elderly. Interestingly, Americans surveyed show less concern about our aging population.

Having just turned 61, I would like to think that I will live out my days as a contributor to my community and society, rather than a perceived drain on scarce resources. For example, I plan to continue teaching at my local community college as long as I am invited, even at a very modest adjunct pay rate.

I feel lucky that I can afford to do this. I get the pleasure of interacting with young people while literally helping keep the cost of tuition down by teaching for less than half the full-time faculty pay rate per class.

But in these troubled times, I feel that I should be doing more to ensure future prosperity for our children and grandchildren.

The greatest asset the retired and semi-retired have is an abundance of free time. Retirees often volunteer for laudable causes like Meals on Wheels, or driving old folks to medical appointments. A Shift Commission survey finds that older workers (and volunteers) value “meaning over money” more than younger workers and say they want to devote their time to “things (they) feel are important.”

If we really want to take our responsibility as local and global community elders seriously, we should be looking to maximize our political influence on the most pressing policy issue of our time: climate change.

We owe it to our children and grandchildren to demand that our elected officials heed the near-unanimous warning of climate scientists that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced massively in the next decade to avoid the devastating consequences of “runaway” climate change in the years after we, the elders, are dead and gone.

We should be ashamed at the prospect of leaving the young a ruined environment racked by killer storms, massive wildfires, rampant drought and the threat of starvation across broad swaths of the globe.

Instead, while national opinion data show that 9 in 10 millennials believe climate change is a real threat to the planet, only 74 percent of seniors above 65 agree that climate change is real.

When asked whether candidate positions on energy policy will affect their vote, 63 percent of those under 35 say yes compared with only 34 percent of those over 65.

Even more depressing, with nearly half of the American electorate comprised of voters over 50, a significant majority of this group — 55 percent — supported Donald Trump in 2016, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. Trump is the candidate who not only denied climate science, but promised to expand fossil fuel production, undercut green energy policy and withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

Aristotle so rightly said long ago, “a good life is not lived until its final act.” Responsible elders need to use their time left here on this tiny planet to stand with the young and demand real solutions to climate change. This includes organizing to defeat Trump and other elected officials in 2020 who would sell the ground out from under their own children to gain fossil fuel industry support.

This will be the most important election in American history. The future is literally at stake. When your time comes, will you be able to say you did your best? For all our sakes, and for our children’s most of all, I hope so.

Jon McCabe of Amherst is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Holyoke Community College.
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