"Too old to rock and roll, too young to die,” went one of my late father’s favorite sayings. Dad was paraphrasing that flute-wielding ’60s politico Jethro Tull, who’d prophesied a great middle-age ennui that would overwhelm the Boomers when Ssocial Security time came nigh.
Great Recession aside, American Boomers are widely considered the wealthiest folks the world has ever known, leaving policy makers and wonks alike to fritter away fellowships wandering what a cultural monolith would ultimately spend its nest egg on. Would well-off Boomers buy for their fortunate college-age sons the infamous “dude houses” that have recently made headlines in Iowa City? Would they pony up their hard-earned dollars for watercolor-worthy coastal or mountain real estate, as they did in 2006, when second homes accounted for 40 percent of home sales? Would they forget Junior and resurrect mothballed heritages of civic engagement in college towns turned retirement meccas such as Madison or Ann Arbor or Iowa City—the latter given laurels as a Money magazine best place to retire. And would they return to wearing Birkenstocks, watching indie films, and coming in late reeking of smoky merlot, reliving the cultural experiment that was their college years?
October’s Occupy Iowa City march on the Ped Mall gave us an inkling of what might be possible when Boomers leave Pottery Barn for the Dens of Protest. There, a few doors down from Java House and Ragstock, grayhairs donned caps bearing slogans such as “Grannys for a Livable Future” and sweaters that proudly proclaimed “Grandmas for Peace.” Regardless of your political bent, the potential mobilization of the Midwest’s swell of senior citizens merits attention. Imagine the civic-topia created by a people trading in their AARP cards to renew a long-expired political license. Fancy a generation dumping its 401-Ks for bully pulpits, taking to council chambers and boards of supervisors for a real-life exam in Politics 101. Iowa’s future would be forever changed, and so would America’s.
In 2006 legislative proposals put forth by the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women reminded lawmakers that as recently as 2004 Hawkeye Nation ranked first in the country in its percentage of population over 85 years old. The facts bear out what we home folks have long known—Iowa Stubborn translates into longevity, gifting the many talented grannys and grampas among us with the opportunity to call to account ineffective politicians for at least a quarter of a century after they’ve begun cashing in their social security.
If October’s march on the Ped Mall is indeed a harbinger of sea-change and not a flash in the generational pan, there might just be some truth in Lewis Mumford’s notion that every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers. There 20-something-year-old protestors held the megaphone for a few mad-as-hell Boomers old enough to be their grandparents.
Years ago I wrote our state’s most revered and respected gray hairs—Robert Ray, Marvin Bell, Dan Gable, among others—and they generously answered for an intergenerational advice anthology I was putting together, Letters to a Young Iowan. One of the most memorable missives came not from a governor or a poet laureate, but from a family friend, Kevin, a grandpa who blew the whistle on his own agemates. “The generation-that-can’t-quite get-over-its-bad-self,” he wrote, “has almost put the finishing touches on a culture of total make-believe, where all you have to do is make the minimum payment, where you can indeed get something for nothing. . . .” Back then Kev’s sentiments struck me as tough, but now I see in them a reminder that Boomers, the eldest of whom are now pushing 70, have the collective power to turn a wayward ship of state around.
In an election year when 76-year-old Ron Paul finished a very close second in the Iowa Straw Poll, and packed the University of Iowa’s Memorial Union for a homecoming youth rally, it’s safe to say grandparents have the potential to do for the rest of the country what they have long done for us here at home: reminding we the people, as Lincoln put it, of the better angels of our natures.
If the Hawkeyes go all hot and cold on you this fall, or if silver-haired Ron Paul breaks your heart on caucus night, buck up. Ask your grandparents to the presidential ball instead. They’re likely to surprise you with the dance moves they know by heart—the pre-Facebook Grapevine, the Electoral Slide, and that timeless and inspiring Iowa classic, the Election Year Twist.