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ACROSS THE GENERATIONS // WHAT'S FAIR?

Bob Pearson's legs are golden, but it is a golfer's tan that stops where his socks cover his ankles. As he sits barefoot in his Clearwater home, his feet seem to glow a neon white.

He's 67 and looks fit and happy. He loves to golf, and he likes to tell a good story and to share his opinions.

Pearson says he has paid his fair share in a lifetime of taxes for the Medicare and Social Security benefits he receives. He worked hard traveling for years as a sales manager and has earned his retirement.

Government should look elsewhere to reduce the deficit _ for example, "going after fraud and waste in Medicare."

"We are Depression babies," Pearson says. "We fought World War II, saved our money."

Democrats are banking on such attitudes to help sink a Republican plan being debated this week to cut Medicare, as well as other attempts this year to cut Medicaid. But Republicans might have one thing going for them: a growing shift in generational politics that has people considering sacrifice for another generation.

It's a question people of all ages are raising because the future seems so uncertain. For seniors, it is fear for their adult children and grandchildren; for baby boomers, like Beverly Bowers, 42, of Largo, it is a growing discontent because their retirement won't be as good as today's seniors.

"I hope I have more than I have now," says Bowers, a bookkeeper. "I hope I can travel, but I don't see it."

Even President Clinton evoked the theme in a speech Tuesday in South Florida, talking about a "solemn obligation to one another across the generations."

Clinton wasn't speaking only of society's obligations to seniors. He was asking seniors to think about their obligations to their children, grandchildren and the poor, whose future might not be as bright.

It is a subtle argument that is a twist on the usual debates about conflict between the young and the old over entitlements.

And although Clinton firmly opposes GOP plans for Medicare and Medicaid, a growing set of statistics and opinions raises many questions. Politics might overshadow these questions in the current debate, but there is little denying they affect how many people view the need for change.

Polls taken over the summer showed 69 percent said Medicare changes were needed to balance the deficit, and 50 percent said changes were needed in Social Security. The same poll, done by a Republican and Democratic pollster for the Concord Coalition, showed three-fourths supported charging higher-income elders more for Medicare.

"I am willing to give up 10 percent or 20 percent of my entitlements to help my grandchildren," says Paul Lasky, 71, the Florida state director of the Concord Coalition, a group that supports entitlement reforms like means-testing for higher-income seniors, among other things. "The elderly are not the greedy people they are cracked up to be."

But how much sacrifice should one generation make for the other? Do we owe something extra to the generation that fought World War II, sent its children to college in huge numbers and created a financial boom for many of them and their children?

Because of the 76-million aging boomers behind them, do older men and women have a responsibility to stop looking at their medical and Social Security benefits as a right if they can afford to pay more?

Do seniors have a responsibility to rethink what old age means? Almost no one really can argue that 65 is old these days, when 41 percent of the people live past 80. There is a revolution of longevity under way, and despite stereotypes, 85 percent of the 33-million seniors are considered relatively healthy.

When 65 was set as the retirement age and eligibility for Social Security, the average life expectancy was 62 years. Now it's 72 for men and 79 for women. Does it make sense to tie benefits to age and not need and income?

Should younger people stop complaining about what they don't have, when their parents and grandparents did more with less? Should adult children realize senior entitlement programs save them from a financial burden for the care of the parents who are frail?

You can argue what changes are needed and when to make them, but the fact is boomers won't enjoy the same benefits as their parents.

The question is, when the changes are made, who pays and how much? And there rests the trigger of generational warfare.

"Seniors are willing to do their sacrifice, but they need to know it is being done fairly," says Fernando Torres-Gil, who heads the U.S. Administration on Aging.

Torres-Gil laments the loss of community he says is behind much of the "balkanized politics we see today, where groups watch out for their own interests."

It's the type of politics that turns seniors into an interest group and fails to show Americans that the debate over Medicare and other budget cuts is a "fundamental question about what kind of government people want to see 20 years down the line," Torres-Gil says.

In 15 years, the first of the boomers start to reach the age of retirement. The problem is there are too many boomers, not enough workers behind them to pay Medicare and Social Security, and not enough money set aside to pay out benefits at the same rate as today.

Such projections upset Nelson Blank, 40, a lawyer in Tampa. He would like to see changes in entitlements, including those for higher-income seniors but acknowledges "we all want stuff and don't want to pay for it."

But someday soon, the bill will come due. Medicare is forecast to run out of money in seven years or so; Social Security starts going out of balance in 2012 and runs out of cash without changes in 2031, according to the National Academy on Aging.

Perhaps more programs should be based on need and not age, some experts suggest. Others encourage society to drop its idealized view of a leisurely retirement and accept that with increasing life expectancy people should work longer.

How any of these philosophical questions affect the current Medicare and budget debates is unclear. Even as more people recognize that generational fairness is an issue, it is hard for others to answer this question: What does one generation owe another?

Bob Pearson thinks younger people owe him respect for his years of hard work. But he sees a debt to children, which is why he participates in a new Big Brothers/Big Sisters program that links seniors with younger adults and children.

"They get to see grumpy old guys like me," Pearson says with a smile. But they also get to hear about a time when you made $50 and saved half, when you went without so your children could have.

"Try that today," he says, acknowledging it is harder for many young families now. "Everything is relative."

Beverly Bowers, a Big Sister in the program, agrees. She says, "I'm not happy to see the money go out of my paycheck each year," referring to the chunk that goes to Medicare and Social Security. "I don't expect to see it."

George Henry, 83, of New Port Richey, says seniors have seen too much.

"I think 99 percent of us old ones are doing pretty well," he says. "I should have to pay something."

He wonders, however, if many of his contemporaries would agree.

"We shouldn't take away from people who need help," Henry says. "But we shouldn't be giving to people who don't need it either."

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