What has happened to the Gerontocracy in this country?


By Al Norman

I was honored to speak recently to the graduating class of the U. Mass Boston B.A. in Gerontology Program. Here is a summary of my remarks:

alnorman_headshotMIT economist Lester Thurow once warned that entitlement-hungry baby boomers would pose a fundamental threat to our democracy. “Will democratic governments be able to cut benefits when the elderly are approaching a voting majority?” Thurow asked. “In the years ahead, class warfare is apt to be redefined as the young against the old, rather than the poor against the rich.

Thurow was totally wrong. Class warfare still exists, and it’s still rich against poor, the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. It turns out that “greedy geezers” are not a voting bloc. Pundits talk about the Latino vote, or the Wal-Mart Moms, or the Tea Party Vote. But politicians do not talk about the elderly vote anymore.

If you think we are heading towards a Gerontocracy, explain how it is possible that a sitting Democratic president, on his own, offered to cut the Social Security cost of living adjustment? The elderly today are an invisible constituency.

Let me show you how “elder irrelevance” affects social policy at the state level:

Although seniors have made it clear they want to avoid nursing facility care, two-thirds of our Medicaid long term care spending still goes to nursing facilities. By state law, people on Medicaid have a civil right to be cared for in the least restrictive setting — but most of our funding for long term care in this state goes to nursing facilities — a form of care that elders pray to avoid.

Second example: the University of Massachusetts bachelor’s of gerontology program has been ‘inactivated.’ In a December 7, 2012 memo, the provost’s office notified the academic community of plans to suspend the program “due to a pattern of low enrollment.”

Less than a month later, I sent the provost’s office a letter signed by more than 100 groups across the country, urging the provost to “strategize ways to reconfigure and strengthen the undergrad major … to secure the future of a bachelor’s of gerontology program, because we believe there is a growing demand in this field, and that eldercare employment will be expanding, not contracting.” The bachelor’s of gerontology program is still on a forced sabbatical today, this class of 2013 graduates notwithstanding.

These two examples — one from academia, one from human services — illustrate the low profile of senior power today. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have been cast as burdens on society, rather than part of an intergeneration pledge of support.

Almost one in five Massachusetts residents today is age 60 and older. There are more than 653,000 households in this state with someone over the age of 60. By the year 2032, Massachusetts will have the eighth largest cohort of people age 65 to 74 in America. But there is no Gerontocracy in this state. The elderly agenda is not driving any debate.

With White House blessing, politicians of all stripes have put their hands on the Third Rail of Politics: Social Security — and have lived to tell about it. The devastation of the middle class has swallowed the greedy geezers, who are living a nose above the poverty line on their Social Security check.

Like the Gray Panthers, the “senior power” movement has tripped into obscurity. The needs of older people are really part of the grievances suffered by the once-middle class that now struggles to get back into mainstream America. Out of this huge, disaffected class comes the promise of a coalition much stronger than one built on age alone.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at info@masshomecare.org or 978-502-3794.