If life is what each of us holds dear, then for most people extending life is a plus, not a minus. And so it is for the rest of society that stands to gain from the contributions of the older generation.
How many children and youth have had their lives enriched and warmed by loving grandparents? How many parents have found their parenting obligations made easier because of the helpful role of their own parents?
In 1972, when I won my party's nomination for the presidency, I thought that I knew just about everything. But more than thirty years later I know that I would be a much wiser president at eighty-three than if elected in 1972 at the age of fifty. (I hasten to add that even with my lesser knowledge in 1972, the country would have been better off if I had won that year. It might even have been better for President Nixon!)
Sometimes it is profitable to listen to the advice of older heads. The late President Lyndon Johnson was one of our most successful presidents in domestic concerns including civil rights, education, Medicare, housing, and labor issues. He had an appealing vision of America as the Great Society. But in foreign policy the sure instincts that guided Johnson on the home front failed him abroad. The result was the tragically escalating American war in Vietnam -- a disaster for both the Vietnamese and the Americans and a political disaster for Johnson that led him to decline reelection in 1968.
All of this could have been avoided if the president had listened to some of his older former colleagues in the Senate such as Mike Mansfield, William Fulbright, George Aiken, Albert Gore Sr., Wayne Morse, and Ernest Gruening. Such experienced military men as World War II hero General James Gavin and retired commander of the Marine Corps General Shoup would also have steered LBJ away from Vietnam. The current American invasion and occupation of Iraq -- another foreign policy blunder -- could have been avoided if President George Bush had heeded the advice of older, more experienced men including his father, the former President Bush, plus the secretary of state and the national security advisor in the first Bush administration, James Baker and General Brent Scowcroft.
The judgments of every president are in the end his, but in almost every case it is worth hearing what the oldest and most experienced people are thinking before the final decision is reached. Needless to say, in some instances the insights of the young and those in the middle years may not only be the most original but also the most valuable. Before making such a momentous decision as committing our young people to war, a president should consult old and young, male and female, white, brown, and black, capital and labor -- the whole range of American society, but especially those who have lived and learned in times both good and bad.
The present generation of middle age, the offspring of the "Greatest Generation" of the depression and World War II years, will be the healthiest, best educated, wealthiest, and most productive older generation America has ever had. This is very good news. The news is all the better in that this coming older generation will exert a powerful influence on the policies, priorities, and values of the United States.
By the year 2020 -- fifteen years hence -- the old in America will outnumber the young. This will be good for young and old alike, and for those in the middle. Much of the true wealth of the nation is concentrated in its ever-growing older generation. These oldsters have valuable life experiences, informed cultural tastes, and political maturity.
In one sense our aging population represents the old dictum "survival of the fittest," but in a more important sense it is the survival of the gentlest and the wisest. When I think of my fellow oldsters, the qualities that come to mind are compassion, understanding, tolerance, patience, and mercy -- sometimes with a mix of crankiness and fading memory.
Since the official senior citizen age begins at sixty-five, I've been a member in good standing for eighteen years, and it's been a good trip. In the past when the subject of aging would enter a conversation, I would say, "It's not how long you live that matters but what you do with your years."
Excerpted from the new book, Social Security and the Golden Age: An Essay on the New American Demographic, by George McGovern, published by Fulcrum Publishing, available in your local bookstore or at www.fulcrumbooks.com