Margaret Morganroth Gullette

(WOMENSENEWS)–OK, here’s the news that broke on the day when the main thing on my mind was figuring which champagne I could afford to celebrate my 65th birthday: the Medicare-Social Security birthday.

I had a girlfriend flying up from New York and we were going to eat rich desserts and kill the bottle.

That’s the day two male bio-ethicists at the National Institutes of Health published an article in Science declaring who should and should not get the flu vaccine first during the next pandemic. As the Boston Globe writer phrased it, should it be "the 60-year-old grandmother with a weak heart and lungs or the healthy 4-year-old with decades ahead of her?"

The Globe writer got the gist of the doctors’ move, pitting life against life by age, but personifying that contrast with two females was her decision.

When it comes to triage by age, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel and Dr. Alan Wertheimer think the government should opt first for 13 to 40-year-olds, then 7 to 12-year-olds, then 41 to 50-year-olds. Presumably those over 50 are out of luck.

"Not because the lives of older people are less valuable," say Emanuel and Wertheimer.

Oh right!

Leave aside that not every 60-year-old is a grandmother. Leave aside that 60 is way young to die for someone whose life expectancy is still measured in decades. Poor woman, just when she’s finally got the kids out of house and is able to do something for herself.

I know "grandmother" is a place-holder for any "old woman," and plenty of younger people think 60 is old.

For a woman.

Granny Death Stakes

To be fair, the NIH doctors would also leave an ailing grandfather without flu protection. But no one singles out "grandpa" for death stakes the way they do "granny." Maybe they don’t think 60 is old for a male. Or maybe they know that in advance of a pandemic a lot of 60-year-old men in Congress would indignantly start cutting funding for "bioethicists" and start stockpiling vaccine for themselves.

What amazes me is this thought experiment, pitting women and men over 50 against everyone else. The Science authors complain because government guidelines about flu vaccines now put sicker and older people–the most vulnerable–near the head of the line. "Step aside, grandma," as one Internet site puts it.

It turns out that how long granny lives is a big issue. Our schizoid age culture celebrates longevity and deplores it at the same time, drawing a grim picture of the elders who are causing the "graying" or "aging" of America.

But elders are mostly women, since women live longer than men. So by extension, it is older women who are going to break the bank on Social Security. Older women are going to exhaust the supply of hale younger workers to support them. Sickly older women who insist on receiving life-giving medicine and surgery are going to destroy Medicare.

Everywhere, scarcity is being constructed to strike fear into the hearts of younger people.

"Alarmist demography" is what age theorist Steven Katz calls this form of ageism.

Debunk Alarmist Demography

Factually, alarmist demography is wrong. Social Security is not in danger until 2042, and a little tinkering with what richer people pay is all it will take to fix it.

A nation is not necessarily worse off because the ratio of workers to retirees has dropped. Economist Paul Krugman pointed out in an article last year in the New York Review of Books that the current 3-to-1 worker-retiree ratio has been the American situation for decades and Social Security has stayed in surplus.

A nation is not better off simply because it has an age pyramid bottom-heavy with youth: that is the demography of the most impoverished developing countries, as Christine Overall notes in her 2003 book, "Aging, Death and Human Longevity."

The anxiety and depression of older people may not get treated properly because of misconceptions that being old is inherently miserable. A 2005 report by the Alliance for Aging Research found "too many physicians and psychologists believe that late-stage depression and suicidal statements are normal and acceptable in older patients." This is part of America’s decline ideology; the belief that decline rather than progress is natural once we age past midlife, or perhaps even past youth.

Many people, especially women, born between 1954 and 1964–still in midlife, supposedly our prime–already live in poverty. According to a Harvard study released in late May, reported by Women’s eNews, 30 million-plus of our country’s 40 million-plus boomer women will not be able to afford to retire, will fall below the poverty line and experience poorer health in their later years with limited aid from traditional safety nets.

Reducing Will to Live

Vicious stereotypes, additionally, can reduce the will to live in older people formulating life-and-death decisions, according to psychologists Rebecca Levy, Oris Ashman and Itiel Dror in an essay in Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying some years ago. It is widely stated that the burden of old people is going to be a drain on society and fall on "the children and grandchildren."

People are even given hints that their suicides in later life will be understandable. "Nor, given the aging of the population, is the topic of rational suicide likely to disappear," wrote Barron Lerner recently in the Washington Post.

Will "suicide" sound more "rational" when elderly women and men do it? Will American decline ideology turn so harsh that suicide comes to seem rational for us in later life? Philosophers now debate whether there is a "duty to die."

Morally and politically these new forms of ageism are evil as well as wrong. They train younger people to think in terms of generational wars. They encourage the young to give up on Social Security rather than battle to improve it.

At midlife nowadays people are supposed to be able to find purpose and pleasure in aging-past-youth. How can we, when the culture is offering people lower wages and ageist stereotyping? Ageism makes those who are forced out of the workplace in their middle years unconsciously ashamed to be cumbering the earth. People who are aging-toward-old-age become vulnerable to mean-spirited ideas about becoming "burdens."

All this discards and diminishes the contributions of people past 65. Doris ("Granny D.") Haddock, who marched across America for campaign reform at age 89, is one of my heroines. But old people shouldn’t be required to be heroic to warrant being left alive. The ethical issue is not who is "valuable"–that leads us to fascist eugenics. The issue is who is most vulnerable, just as the current guidelines recognize.

That there can be debates about "the duty to die"–that younger people are made to fear and disdain their elders–is shocking.

The slide toward demonizing longevity and pitting the generations against one another demonstrates an escalation in the already-vexed process of being aged by culture. This is another culture war we ignore at our peril.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is the author of "Aged by Culture," chosen a notable book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor. She is a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University.

For more information:

Harvard Generations Policy Program
The Global Generations Policy Institute
"Baby Boomer Women: Secure Futures Or Not?"

Age Beat Online/The Blog: