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Generations: ties and tensions

Published Oct. 4, 2005

(ran LT NT CT, PT, CTI, CI, HT)

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 4-year-old girl climbed onto the lap of her frail, 95-year-old great-grandmother and offered a tentative hug.

Then the elderly woman with the ready smile summoned her limited strength, pushing her wheelchair across the living room of her tidy assisted-living apartment.

"All my visitors get a ride," the woman laughed. Young and old loved the trip.

This instant of intergenerational delight came during a family get-away that took us from the political swirl of the nation's capital to the pristine suburbs of the Twin Cities. One of the highlights was a first meeting between my daughter Neva and her great-grandmother on my wife's side, Myrtle Soderlind.

Neva had long anticipated coming face to face with this fascinating and authentic family matriarch, a proud woman born on an Idaho farm before the advent of electric lights and automobiles _ let alone computer games and VCRs.

Despite the wheelchair ride and pleasant exchange of words, Neva seemed distant and uneasy at times, nervously contemplating the cold steel wheelchair and arthritic hands of a very old person.

The encounter reminded me of the current state of affairs in the United States between the generations, which turns out to be an equally complex and delicate relationship infused with deep ties and smoldering tensions.

Over the last five years, folks in sophisticated political circles have buzzed about a looming conflict between the current generation of retirees and the twentysomething kids of Generation X. Sharp-edged buzzwords like "greedy geezers" and "generational warfare" define the discussion, revealing underlying anger that threatens to grow more hostile as 76 million baby boomers move toward retirement early in the next century.

The current battleground: government entitlements.

Senior citizen advocates point to Social Security and Medicare as remarkably successful social insurance programs that have lifted millions of older Americans from mere existences in poverty to meaningful lives of dignity.

The advocates insist that modest reforms may be needed to assure the long-term solvency of both Social Security and Medicare but vow to use their political muscle to stop any effort to dismantle the programs or turn them into welfare.

Policy analyst Mary Jane Yarrington of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare warns against the misguided few "who would abolish Social Security for fear of an impending welfare state."

But some others claim that Social Security and Medicare rest on the brink of financial ruin and can be saved only with massive tax increases, painful benefit cuts, privatization, means testing or immediately raising the eligibility age to 70 or beyond.

"The boat is going down and there are too few life rafts," warns youth advocate Rob Nelson.

This rhetoric will almost certainly heat up as society grapples with difficult financial and health care issues facing an aging society. The demographic agequake promises to shake up the political landscape as we strive to provide for retirement and health care and reduce a budget-strangling deficit at the same time.

But as the generational warfare debate goes forward, I'll think of that first meeting between my 4-year-old and her great-grandmother:

On one side, a woman who worked a farm in the early 1900s and who marveled at her first sight of an airplane cutting through the Midwestern sky, who breathed a sigh of relief that her sons survived World War II and who marveled at technological changes she never dreamed possible. Now she bravely looks ahead to the reality of her own declining health, neither seeking a government handout nor special privileges as she plans to enter a nursing home.

On the other side, a bright girl who can already draw and print out pictures on a sophisticated computer and who looks forward to a world whose technological advances will be even more stunning than those of the past, a fun-loving kid untouched by modern cynicism, still too young to toss around political slogans as if they were indisputable facts. .