In our era of insecure aging, it’s time for more than toasts and wishbones
Many of us consider Thanksgiving one of our great national events—a holiday organized around the great unifiers of food, family and—for some—football. Typically the generations gather and catch up and look forward with toasts, humor and good-natured chiding. Or so goes the sepia-toned gatherings sketched by Normal Rockwell and celebrated by Hallmark.
As great cultural and political chasms have emerged in our politics and social views in recent years, these annual family gatherings have taken a hit. In every medium of chronicling and sharing, thousands upon thousands described last year’s pre-election holiday as times of divisive and heated argument—or awkward agreements to avoid such discussions at all. (An intriguing new study suggests political conflict shortened affected family meals by an average of one half-hour.)
Given the continuing political divide of 2017, even the turkeys might sense more division and disruptive discourse brewing. Let us suggest an alternative to this potential blight on millions of inter-generational family gatherings—and an opportunity to hold hopeful and productive conversations on a threat to the future giving of thanks for all around the table.
A great threat to part of the family is a call to action for the whole family
Glacial change can be dangerous because while slow, it is powerful, inexorable and potentially catastrophic. For more than a decade our parents and grandparents have moved through the stages of work as the massive Boomer cohort. Their exit and its profound impacts on our economy have been predicted, and now are increasingly chronicled in studies, journalistic accounts and a sea of online posts.
This year, as we look around the Thanksgiving table, abstract trends will reveal themselves right in front of us. The simple and chilling fact is that every year, everyone is aging. The kids are hopeful or scared about uncertain futures and their parents—from the late 20s to the 50s—are watching the workplace of the future transform at lightning speed and stimulate growing anxiety.
And then there are the elders—the parents, grandparents and great grandparents who are facing a longer lifetime than any group of people in human history. It is possible that a responsive government, generous employers and robust nonprofits could step in and support those who reared us and helped build the social and personal wealth we all enjoy. Spoiler alert: None of the above is happening, or seems likely to do so.
This year give the longer piece of the wishbone to your elders—and Act
We have reached a point where the fate of the elders will fall to everyone else around the table. Family always matters, and for those who raised us our support will be increasingly indispensable. The larger society’s already frayed services and support for our elders is being challenged by policies that will contract rather than expand healthcare for those 50+. The dominant conversation about the limited lifelines of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid envisions reductions, not expansions.
[Hint: Don’t get derailed on the blame discussion of these “political” matters: DC or swamp, Republican or Democrat, everyone is talking about reducing or maintaining the status quo; no one is talking about more money for the elderly.]
Much is needed to secure a tolerable future for everyone at the table. But alongside this year’s traditional menu, the greatest peril faces our older workers, our pre-retirees who can’t afford retirement because they need continuing earnings to support themselves and their families. Our families cannot afford the current practice of ending gainful employment for contributing employees in their early 60s. At least this one item should be on every thoughtful family’s agenda.
It’s time to reinvent our approach to the later years of work and adjust to today and tomorrow’s brutal new reality: rosy retirement with comfortable pensions and endless golf is a diminishing reality. If one thing emerges from millions of dinner tables around the country this year (alongside momentarily full stomachs), it could be a popular resolve to insist that employers address the social challenge of extending work and enabling options like phased retirement that provide much-needed continuing income combined with the flexibility to do the physical caregiving that those in their 70s, 80s and 90s do and will require.
You may be a Boomer nearing retirement age, a GenXer watching the end of your career approaching prematurely or a Millennial trying to pay your student debt, begin your family and support your aging parents. Regardless, it is in everyone’s interest to come together around this year’s Thanksgiving with a wish, a hope and a family commitment to act on behalf of what we call “Respectful Exits” for our older family members.
Raise a toast to the future by joining our emerging campaign to extend work and reinvent retirement, and please be sure to share this blog and news of our campaign on social media.
Let’s make our family Thanksgiving celebrations great again by setting aside our divisions and solving our most pressing problems together.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Abraham Lincoln