For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice. – TS Eliot
As the Great Depression ravaged the United States and the world, unemployment soared. Jobs were scarce and precious. Entire savings had been obliterated. Banks still careened from the losses. If you had retirement savings in 1928, there was a good chance you didn’t have them in 1930. Banks were easy to distrust after they had unthinkably run out of money. Aging workers found that they had no way of retiring because they had no money saved and no place to put it. Young workers couldn’t find jobs because people were reaching adulthood every day but an equivalent number of elderly people weren’t retiring.
In short, the number of workers grew and grew, but the number of jobs didn’t. Louisiana Democrats in the early 1930s popularized the notion of a pension for every worker in the United States. Huey Long took the proposal nationwide. The growing popularity culminated in the Social Security Act of 1935.
After passage, aging workers could retire with some financial security, and younger workers could enter those jobs. The engine of America chugged along as the natural cycle resumed; one generation handed the economy over to the next.
America’s engine has stalled. Social Security might have allowed aging workers to retire, but it certainly didn’t mandate retirement. Nowhere is that more evident than America in the 2020s. The president is 79, the previous president (and betting favorite for 2024) is 75, the Speaker of the House is 81, and the Senate leaders are 71 and 79. The average age of a US Senator is 64, and the average age of a Representative is 58. Congress has been trending older for at least 20 years.
The issue trickles down to the state level as well. I am running for the Alabama House of Representatives this year. My primary opponent is 72 years old. The incumbent Representative is also 72 years old. These men have spent a lifetime accruing wealth, influence, and connections. And they refuse to relinquish those things and ride into a comfortable retirement. At age 72, I can’t imagine they are ambitious political climbers.
It would seem their utmost goal is to occupy a seat in public office that could be filled by someone with new ideas and new energy. This seems to be the driving ambition of the political class from Alabama to Washington, DC. An insatiable desire to fill space and do nothing. Why else would someone forego time with his grandkids to sit in a legislature?
It’s not as if America is surging forward, towering bestride the 21st century, and these men simply must be a part of an outburst of American exceptionalism. Congress passes a few bills every year, and the country largely stagnates. The most consequential bill in modern history was the Affordable Care Act, which felt at the time like a watershed reorganizing of the American economy but was, in fact, mostly tinkering and tweaking. Health insurance remains largely unchanged for the overwhelming majority of Americans, and it took thousands of pages to accomplish it because everybody had some gripe.
By contrast, the Social Security Act restructured the economy for nearly every (White) working-age man in America, and it was only 37 pages long. It went from fringe Louisiana idea to national law in three years. That’s the energy of youth; that’s the energy of a younger America. The Social Security Act faced opposition. One senator accused the legislation of being “a teeny-weeny bit of socialism.” (Honestly, it is. Socialism is like money; the right amount can solve your problems, but loving it is the root of all evil.) There was opposition, but ultimately, it passed. Can you imagine anything akin to Social Security ever passing again, no matter how good of an idea it might be?
An elderly America spends years debating hundreds of pages that simply embroider the existing system. It feels like an unbearable upheaval, and all of the political energy of the next six years is spent on undoing that little bit of progress. That’s a stagnant country. That’s the definition of decadence.
I would never want anyone to think that I’m saying someone over the age of 65 cannot be brilliant and productive. I love my parents, I love Nick Saban, and I love many public servants at all levels of government. All retirement age and all brilliant. However, we all know that someone will eventually become “set in their ways.”
This can be a good thing. This can provide a counterbalancing force to the passionate intensity of youth, a brake for a generation that is all gas pedal. Similarly, conservatives are meant to perform this function in a healthy republic. Liberals/progressives stomp the accelerator, conservatives pump the brakes, and the country eases forward at a safe speed. William F. Buckley described this as conservatives “standing athwart history, yelling ‘stop.’” As a progressive, I chafe at the brakemen of America, but I understand their purpose. Age and its earned wisdom can serve the same purpose.
However, the United States has become all brakes, no gas.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. – 1 Corinthian 9:24 (NIV)
Some studies have shown that most people tend to solidify their political beliefs as they reach age 18. That means, for a 72 year old, they began to form solid ideas about the world in 1966. Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy were still alive, we had never been to the moon, the Soviet Union menaced half the world, and only 14 states held presidential primaries. The political and literal map of 1966 is unrecognizable in 2022.
Baby Boomers saw America through Vietnam, devastating political violence, stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, the Cold War, and 9/11. It’s time to hang up the jersey and celebrate your accomplishments. Congratulations on a race well run.
I and many other milennials aren’t even young anymore. I’ve grown weary waiting for Boomers to retire. I have a wife, a kids, and a mortgage, and still I wait for my parents’ generation to relinquish the country.
Pass us the baton; America needs to sprint again.
A version of this article first appeared at christianforalabama.com.