“The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” Charles de Gaulle is reputed to have said. Despite the mordant wisdom most of us see in that statement, an alarming number of people refuse to follow his implicit advice. Many of us, particularly in America, the land of rugged individualism, see ourselves as crucial in the grand scheme of things, and are reluctant to leave the stage. That may explain the real insecurity behind the common belief in the immortality of the soul.
Admittedly, roughly two-thirds of the way through my career, I started to see myself as experienced, reliable, professionally knowledgeable, and possessing good judgment: all the ingredients for an inflated sense of indispensability. As retirement approached, I felt more than a twinge of regret. In retrospect, it was merely the optical illusion of being too close to the subject to see it whole, in the way humans once believed the earth was flat.
This illusion is epidemic in our bustling city-states like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, where the raw-material inputs are ego and ambition, and a frequent output is monuments to vanity as futile as Ozymandias’s decaying effigy. In these towns, the inevitable first question in social gatherings is not who you are, what about your family, or a similar inquiry, but what do you do for a living? Busy people do not waste valuable networking time on the unimportant.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum: “Speak no ill of the dead,” according to the Romans. The rote obsequies Republicans have been mouthing after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg promise all the qualities of a Roman Senate faction observing formalities for the passing of a rival. The pro forma eulogies cost them nothing, and camouflage their glee at the prospect of jamming a replacement through confirmation. Remedies to address the deaths of 200,000 Americans from COVID-19, and the prospect of thousands more dead by winter, will slip further toward the bottom of Republicans’ legislative agenda.
We face the unsavory prospect that the nonstop stress Americans have endured from a deadly pandemic their government deliberately let rage out of control, unprecedented wildfires that have failed to excite the concern of that same government, and a rash of extrajudicial killings, will be exacerbated by the perils-of-Pauline melodrama of a Supreme Court confirmation battle. This is a probability, every detail of which the media will shrilly report, that may not finish torturing us until January 20. Are we to be spared nothing?
We might have been spared some of it had Justice Ginsburg heeded de Gaulle’s advice rather than Dylan Thomas’s ill-natured plea to rage against the dying of the light. When Democrats last controlled the Senate, she was already 80. Might not a graceful departure, followed by fitting accolades, have been the proper capstone for a distinguished career?
Asking this question is not mere pique at an eminent public official leaving us in a crisis. It exemplifies the failure of our political system. Many observers have noted the antiquated features of our constitutional structure: the grossly disproportionate representation of state populations in the Senate (a product of a compromise over slavery); voting districts drawn by partisan state legislatures in a manner reminiscent of the rotten boroughs of 18th century England; and the Rube Goldberg contraption of the Electoral College, an obsolete contrivance whose only other renowned practitioner was the Holy Roman Empire.
It is less often remarked that the people carrying out our public business are similarly antiquated. The Congressional Research Service has noted that the average age of a U.S. senator in 2018 was 62 years, the oldest in the institution’s history. In 1981, the dawn of the Reagan revolution of gerontocracy, the average age of a senator was 53. House members have aged similarly: in 1981 the average age was 49, now it is 57. The incumbent president is 74, challenged by a candidate of 77; the speaker of the House is 80; the majority and minority leaders of the Senate are 78 and 69, respectively.
Economists attribute diverse causes to America’s growing economic inequality: outsourcing, automation, financialization, skills gaps, and conscious rigging by political forces. Could that rigging, accompanied as it is by the yawning disparity of wealth between young and old, somehow connect to the age of our political elites?
There is a similar disparity between young and old in government-provided benefits. But, as a 2018 Pew Research paper states, old people paradoxically interpret their own good fortune thanks to government programs as a reason to dislike “big government” as an instrument that would profligately aid the young and minorities:
In discussing the long-term political ramifications of the generation gap, political writer Ronald Brownstein has framed it as a divide between “the gray and the brown,” wherein older whites, including aging baby boomers, favor smaller government investment in social support programs except for those, such as Social Security, that directly affect them. For these older voters, big government is associated with higher taxes, which primarily benefit younger demographic groups whose needs they do not fully appreciate.
It is difficult not to conclude that for at least several decades, the Silent and Baby Boom generations have sat atop the rest of society like a monstrous stone idol that demands worshipping. And this sacrifice of the young to the old has not played out in politics alone.
A 2019 report found that the average age of CEOs at the time of their hiring for Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies was 58 in 2019, just four years shy of being eligible for early Social Security benefits. The American high-technology sector has come in for severe and deserved criticism, but the fact that it is one of the few truly innovative business sectors might show the advantages of having younger people in charge.
Kurt Andersen has argued that the political and economic rigging of American life that he sees has come with a hefty side-order of cultural stagnation. It started in the 1970s, he says, as a regression to a simpler time, with nostalgia-soaked movies like American Graffiti and The Last Picture Show blazing the trail. By the Reagan ascendancy, it was in full swing. He notes that apart from high-tech devices, the “look” of American street scenes, of American life, of its cultural texture, is remarkably similar to what it was 40 years ago.
This explains the fact that most movies now are either the umpteenth sequel of a previous blockbuster of probable Star Wars vintage, or a live-action rehash of a cartoon, or some transparently juvenile and escapist theme that, somewhat discordantly, appeals to Baby Boomers.
After the dizzyingly rapid evolution of American popular music throughout the 20th century, the last few decades have seen near stasis. Revivals of 1960s rock acts became popular in the 1990s. Now they are ubiquitous, being in demand by nostalgia-besotted Silents and Boomers who, unlike their children, can afford the concert tickets – as long as the acts sing exactly the same tunes, in exactly the same manner, as 50 years ago. How long is Mick Jagger, age 77, going to keep this up?
The death in office of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after she experienced years of serious health scares even while maintaining a Supreme Court seat, is a poignant symbol that America, once seen as the quintessential “young country,” is becoming as culturally static as the later Ottoman Empire. “Make America great again” is a potent slogan precisely because it appeals to the futile yearning of the very demographics that vote in the highest percentages, the Silents and Boomers, for the myth of an impossible time-travel to the days when they were young. It is an open question whether this ghost can be laid to rest in time for our country to survive.