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Now You're Talking: Fear Plus Rage Can Lead to Action

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The column I wrote last week about the impact of the current financial meltdown on the well-being of older Americans called for a major initiative to provide jobs for those in the "Grand Generation" to perform community service and rebuild the country's social infrastructure. I had no idea it would prompt such an emotional response.

"Thinking about possibly living another 30 years has me frightened -- financially, if not otherwise. At least I'm not alone in my worries," wrote a 60-something woman from Oak Hill.

"I'm scared to death," wrote another woman. "My husband was forced to take a buyout at 65 and cannot find anything. Do you know how many ads for employment say 'highly energetic' individuals? Of course, that means young."

A woman who got laid off at 55 explained: "I stopped getting mammograms and Paps several years ago. I used to say that's my 'retirement plan.' Who cares if I can cure anything if I live in abject poverty?" From Long Beach, Calif., another woman wrote: "You have described my husband and me exactly. . . . I would like to continue to contribute and be paid for my participation. Ageism is real and virulent."

Fear, despair and silent struggle also morphed into rage. "I am ticked off," wrote a friend in Washington. "This is an unprecedented economic situation, and when you add ageism to that, it is a terrifying combination."

But fear plus rage can lead to action. "Hope you can follow your Grand Generation volunteer concept wherever it leads," wrote a 75-year-old man from Keedysville, Md. "An older corps of people to revitalize social structures in our culture is great," wrote a woman in the District. Another reader suggested calling it the "Grand Corps."

Some readers considered my suggestion selfish. "I am not surprised you want a bailout. Everyone else is asking for one. You are the master of your own fate. Think individual responsibility. The president or the government is not the answer."

And a few were downright hostile: "Ridiculously whining so the Nanny State will take care of you," began one comment posted online. "As if the current generation of minors needs a bunch of self-centered, negative-thinking, LAZY old codgers and codgeresses INSTRUCTING the youngsters on how to live well! Maybe instead of the "Grand Generation," a better moniker would be the "Grabby Generation."

Hmmm. As a woman pointed out online, she is disabled and living on Social Security. The IRA she had counted on has lost 40 percent of its value. "I have no time and no way to make it back. I'm not a whiner. I don't share my fears. . . . But I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I 'did' work, I 'did' do my best to save. Now I'm screwed."

Several readers followed up with suggestions on how to create a Grand Corps: "We need seniors to help young families, help social services, and possibly even help governments," wrote one woman. Another pointed out that having older people in a classroom would "create stability."

And what about a senior intern program in government? "Retirees could work in legislators' offices, whether in D.C. or local districts, as adjunct staffers to congressional committees, or at the office of the secretary level of the various federal departments," recommended a social worker in Cheverly.

"I believe that many people would welcome such a 'give back' or 'pay forward' option for some of their retirement time," she continued. "A program such as this, which would both offer seniors an opportunity to augment their retirement as well as provide another door through which we can offer our time and wisdom, might be worth consideration in the legislative packages that are being developed."

Last week, the House of Representatives approved a stimulus package that included increased funding for a program called Community Service Employment for Older Americans, which subsidizes part-time work in community service for low-income people. It's a very small step.

But the Grand Generation has found its voice and is starting to roar. Share your views at mytime@washpost.com.

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