Last night I heard from an old friend. I met him through his kids, who are of an age with mine. He’s 57 years old and leaving next week for Puerto Rico to start graduate school. “It depends on my mother and my kids,” he said, “but my intention is to leave the country to teach English.”
My home town of Buffalo has been clinically depressed since the middle of the last century. This makes it a great place to be from. Either you left at 18 or you slog it out until retirement, at which time you escape the snow and taxes by moving to Florida, the Carolinas, or Arizona. (Sound familiar?)
In 1917, George Eastman built the Eastman Dental Dispensary in Rochester to provide dental care to indigent children. It’s been closed for a while, but is now being converted to low-cost housing for seniors. “Do you realize I qualify to live in that place?” my friend asked. I myself can’t imagine a more depressing place to end my years, since there isn’t a decent store in miles. It would be day after day of hobbling painfully through slushy downtown streets to one’s bus stop while impatient New Yorkers sound their horns. Give me the village almshouse any day.
When America was still a rural Arcadia, old timers lived with their kids. As a person’s capacity for hard physical labor slowly declined, they were assigned less onerous tasks, like child care, sewing, cooking and gardening.
The Industrial Revolution really messed this up. There is no room for Grandma or Grandpa in urban America. Our kids live in very small flats, if they’re not working in Hong Kong. There are no fireplaces, and no babies to dandle on one’s knee.
It was actually the Great Depression that rang the death knell for multi-generational families. Faced with a choice of providing for children or parents, the only solution for America’s poorest families was to send Granny to the poorhouse. These locally-financed institutions were—as were a lot of things then—overburdened and meager. The terrible condition of America’s elderly in the 1930s is why we ended up with our current Social Security system.
The problem is, we’re living longer and longer, and we’re healthier while we do it. According to the nifty Social Security life expectancy calculator, I should live until 86; my friend until 83 (someone ought to do something about that actuarial gender bias, by the way). Assuming we retain our marbles, there’s time for a whole second career there.
That’s especially true in a society that is making its workers redundant not at 65, but at 50 or 55. By delaying our Social Security benefits until 66 and 10 months, the government has told my age cohort that it wants us working longer. It hasn’t, however, given us any means of forcing someone to keep employing us. Too many of my peers have been forced into low-wage jobs after age 50 because they’re seen as too old to be really useful.
On the other hand, twenty, thirty or forty years is just way too long to spend playing golf. So what’s a poor rebellious Son of Toil to do? Head elsewhere. Reinvent oneself. Do something meaningful.
Take up painting, obviously.