“The angel of progress has been sent away”

In The Lost Conspiracy, a colonial power expanded centuries ago to the island where the book takes place. The impetus for their expansion was more land — not for the living but for the dead. Their culture believes in such an elaborate afterlife that a colonial governor’s entire life is consumed by keeping up with the needs of generations of his ancestors. “They need soap! How terrible the afterlife must have been all these years without soap!”

I wasn’t sure at first what this was a metaphor for. But as I read the Esquire article Young People in the Recession: the War Against Youth, all I could think of was this governor ignoring his people while he sent cartloads of soap up the volcano for his cremated ancestors.

Government, academia, the professions, corporations, unions, and both political parties — all continue to mine the vulnerability of youth in service of the needs of their aging power base. Separately, each of these cases would amount to a minor scandal, but taken together they point to a broader and more significant alteration to the way of the world. From every corner of the institutional spectrum, the whole of American society has been rearranged so that the limits of vision coincide exactly with the death of the Boomers.

My metaphor is dramatic; I use it because I think in terms of the stories I read, and this one resonated. I want to make it clear that I don’t think of everyone over 60 as a pot of ash, nor does the Esquire article. Far from it! I love my parents and my grandparents and respect everything they’ve done for me; of course I want them to have a comfortable old age. And one thing the article leaves out is how many elderly poor there are; not everyone of retirement age is benefiting so much from this pattern in our entitlement programs.

But if we as a country want to progress, that means supporting young people with new ideas and long lives to put them in action. It means supporting children and their parents. We are in a pattern of planning ahead financially only so far as matters to the wealthy and powerful, almost all of whom are in the last third or quarter of their lives. As a teacher and a person who cares what this country will look like more than 30 years down the road, I find this utterly terrifying.

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2 Responses to “The angel of progress has been sent away”

  1. allen says:

    I have so many problems with that Esquire article that I don’t know where to start. It conflates, as you termed it, “the wealthy and powerful, almost all of whom are in the last third or quarter of their lives” with the elder set in general. Then it goes on to imply that protecting Social Security and Medicare spending from the tax-cut-blowback axe is the reason that we’re cutting spending on education, et al, rather than the fact that there were huge tax cuts for the rich in the first place. Ugh.

    • Sam says:

      Yeah, those are fair criticisms. He does set up some false dichotomies, for sure, and doesn’t do enough to make it clear how many elderly are poor, and how very very hard it is to be elderly and poor. But I think he does a good job of laying out the ways in which our sacred cows of entitlement are about older folks rather than younger folks. I do think that’s a real pattern.

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