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Newsletter #59: What Happens When Grandma Doesn’t Die?
This month’s newsletter was inspired by my own family’s Christmas get togethers.
What Happens When Grandma Doesn’t Die?
About 15-20 years ago, before I was a published writer, I came up with an idea for an article that I wanted to pitch to Esquire magazine. I was going to call it, “What Happens When Grandma Doesn’t Die?”
When I was a kid, we always went to my grandparents’ houses for Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July. All of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were there. It was a classic and traditional household pattern.
What occurred to me later in life is that when I was a kid, my grandparents on both sides of my family were in their 50s when they had everyone gathered at their houses on holidays. In fact, it’s possible they were in that role in their 40s before I can remember it.
As the years went by, as decades went by, things stayed exactly the same, even as my parents’ generation aged into being grandparents themselves.
Three of my grandparents lived well into their 90s. I had aunts and uncles who had to wait until they were in their 70s to really get to be the grandparents in the way that their own parents had gotten to be in their 40s or 50s.
Today’s extended life spans have had a profound effect on generational turnover. In essence, in the postwar era things got stuck, and generational change was put on hold for a period in ways that robbed the younger generations of positions and honors that previously they would have received in the prime of their life.
The perfect example of this is Prince Charles. His mother became Queen in 1952 when she was 26 years old. Charles was born in 1948 and has been heir apparent for almost 60 years. Elizabeth II is the longest reigning monarch in English history. Charles has been heir apparent longer than anyone in English history. If Charles ever does become king, it will be as an old man.
This sort of situation is not unprecedented. It always existed in various cases. But it has now become increasingly the norm.
Lots of people, including myself, have complained that the Baby Boomers have been hogging leadership positions in America since the 1980s and won’t go away. But in some ways the Boomers were also the first victims of this dynamic.
We also see that many of the gerontocrats running our country, like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Stephen Breyer, are in fact from the Silent Generation, not Boomers. Even if you date the Boomers culturally to an earlier date (I think the 1942-1954 birth years are the cultural heartland of Boomerdom), the same dynamics were present in people born in the 1930s.
Thinking about generational change in terms of our parents or grandparents puts a different perspective on the issue from the norm. My Greatest Generation grandparents can’t be accused of clinging to authority positions for too long. They, and many others of that generation, retired at 65 and enjoyed a very long period of playing golf, bowling, and collecting Social Security. They were maybe the first generation in American history to really be able to retire in the way that we know it.
Rather than holding on too long, they just lived a long time. Would any of us want our parents or grandparents to die so that we can finally host Thanksgiving dinner at our place? No.
It’s also the case that people don’t just live longer, they are often very healthy, sharp, and able to perform past age 65. (However, in my observation, people past 75 and certainly past 80 have almost certainly lost a step).
Masculinist reader Tom Addison once observed that retiring shifts you from wealth creation to wealth consumption, cutting off vital years from the compounding effects of investments, skills, experiences, etc. And it reduces the inheritance you can pass to your children.
But we do have to think about how we restructure the maturity curve of life and generational change structure of our society. Having people sit in the waiting room for decades, in the way that Prince Charles has, is not fair.
And having a society dominated by old people reduces dynamism and leads to all sorts of toxic effects. There probably is a connection between this interruption in generational turnover in the decline of America and the vast number of problems that have accumulated in our country in recent decades.
During the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, it was observed that the judge was a 70-something year old Boomer who still held to traditional views on the impartiality of justice and the rule of law. Some claimed that when our nation’s court benches are populated by activist Millennials, the rule of law in America will be a dead letter.
Maybe that will be true and maybe it won’t. But I do know that parents can’t protect their kids forever. At some point every generation passes from the scene, and their children and grandchildren have to step up and earn what they’ve inherited all over again, hopefully adding to that legacy to bequeath to their own descendants.
Every generation deserves their chance to shine, to see what they are made of. If they do stumble, well that’s the human condition.
What should we do? I’m not sure, but here are a few thoughts.
First, we need to introduce or strengthen the life shift from executive to elder statesman. Rather than companies changing their retirement age so CEOs can stick around longer, we need them to move on but to find new productive roles for them. People shouldn’t be allowed to stick around in high level line positions or high visibility public roles well into traditional retirement age. But we need to find high value ways for them to apply their skill.
A good example of this in action was Lee Hamilton. Hamilton was my former Congressman, a long serving Democrat from Southern Indiana. He was first elected to Congress in 1964 and retired in 1999 at the very reasonable age of 68 or so. In 2002, he was asked to co-chair the 9/11 Commission, and was active in a wide range of similar roles afterward. That’s a great model for how things should work.
These folks could also look for ways to use their accumulated prestige to build up and promote younger leaders, to elevate them into the spotlight. Former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar (Silent Generation) stayed in office too long, and it caused him to end his career in ignominious defeat. However, he developed a cadre of protégés that he gave lots of responsibility to early in their careers who went on to become high profile, high impact leaders in their own right. But those people have not developed a next generation in turn.
Second, parents and grandparents should be strategically pre-distributing some of their assets to children rather than waiting for death to pass on an inheritance. I’ve noted before how there’s this conservative idea that children should be out of the home and independent at age 18. I can assure you the wealthy and elite of our society don’t think this way. They have an intergenerational perspective, and actively utilize their connections, money, etc. to advance the fortunes of their children.
For example, a large number of younger workers in certain sectors in NYC are subsidized by their parents. An early twentysomething woman at my church there used to work for an art auction house. She said that of her cohort there, only one person was NOT getting a parental subsidy. The ability to take an unpaid internship or underpaid position in a prestigious institution or in a city where people have access to high value networks can be critical to career advancement.
Not everybody has the money to do this. Obviously, people need to retain assets sufficient for their own retirement. And parents shouldn’t over function for their children. But thinking about how to launch your children or grandchildren into adulthood like a rocket should be a consideration in thinking about how to manage one’s money.
Third, each generation needs to find a way to assert itself. Generation X in particular made peace with living perpetually in the shadow of the Boomers. Had my own generation asserted itself more, we may have gotten much more than we have. Instead, we’ll likely get passed over in favor of the Millennials.
IIRC, in their book Generations, Strauss and Howe predicted that Generation X would in effect have to jump on a grenade to prepare the way for the Millennials to lead America as a new Greatest Generation. If you ask me, the Millennials are much more like the Boomers than the Greatest Generation. But I do think Generation X needs to get much, much more aggressive about disrupting legacy Boomer leaders and institutions that have lingered far too long so that the torch does get passed to the Millennials and the Zoomers in a timely way.
As another example of people trying to hang on too long, I’ve noticed that some people have even started politicizing their own deaths in order to get in one last blow.
I noticed this a few years ago when a former local leader was about to die. The local PBS station did a documentary about him in which he shared his farewell reflections and publicly reconciled with all his old political enemies.
But there was one group of old enemies he pointedly didn’t forgive, conservative religious Republicans. He used this final public statement to take pot shots at them, exploiting the social rules about not speaking ill of the dead or dying as a shield to allow him to attack people who were socially unable to respond. (It was completely inappropriate for this public TV station to have allowed him to do that, particularly when one completely legitimate reason religious conservatives didn’t like this guy, his notorious philandering, was never mentioned).
John McCain did something similar when he arranged for his funeral to be an anti-Trump showcase. Just because Trump himself didn’t behave with dignity didn’t force people like McCain to respond in kind. I think what this shows is that Trump was in many ways a mirror held up to our society, reflecting back some of its unfortunate dysfunctions. But, of course, because of our social conventions around death, Trump comes out looking worse.
This is yet another social norm being eroded, and if it continues, we’ll see social rules like “never speak ill of the dead” go the way of the dodo. You can only weaponize social conventions for so long before people wise up.
The true content of Occupy Wall Street was not the demand, tacked onto the movement a posteriori like a post-it stuck on a hippopotamus, for better wages, decent housing, or a more generous social security, but disgust with the life we’re forced to live. Disgust with a life in which we’re all alone, alone facing the necessity for each one to make a living, house oneself, feed oneself, realize one’s potential, and attend to one’s health, by oneself. Disgust with the miserable form of life of the metropolitan individual—scrupulous distrust / refined, smart skepticism / shallow, ephemeral loves / resulting extreme sexualization of every encounter / then the periodic return to a comfortable and desperate separation / constant distraction, hence ignorance of oneself, hence fear of oneself, hence fear of the other. The life in common that was attempted in Zuccotti Park, in tents, in the cold, in the rain, surrounded by police in the dreariest of Manhattan’s squares, was definitely not a full rollout of the vita nova—it was just the point where the sadness of metropolitan existence began to be flagrant. At last it was possible to grasp our shared condition together, our equal reduction to the status of entrepreneurs of the self. That existential epiphany was the pulsing heart of Occupy Wall Street, for as long as it was fresh and lively.
– The Invisible Committee, “To Our Friends”
Cover image credit: Mark Jones, CC BY 2.0