Death of an American

A life spanning the American century.

My grandfather has died, and with him, an era.

It's been said that most generations endure the same range of good and bad times, of boom and bust, of war and peace; what makes them different is where in their lives they are when these things happen.  My grandfather was a member of what's been called the Greatest Generation, a cohort which piled up their bad luck at the beginning of life, and if they lived long enough, a bit more at the very end, with some really great times in the middle.

As a child, he endured the Depression, which sounds like bad luck.  It wasn't good luck, but being poor as a child isn't as hard as being a failing adult because in your youth, you know no other life.  His family wasn't all that poor for the times.  Although they had to raise chickens for food, his father had a steady job in a gold-mining area, and if there's one industry that does well in economic depression it's anything that creates gold where there was none before.

It was harder on his father, who'd wanted to advance himself but couldn't.  As it was, my great-grandfather was lucky to have reliable work when so many had none; still, it was rough for him to give up on all his dreams slowly as the years dragged by.

My grandfather reached adulthood just in time for World War II.  Here too, he had more luck than many others of the same age: he had flat feet and was thrown out of boot camp because he couldn't march.  His neighbors and classmates marched off to training, marched to the port, marched onto a troopship, and marched straight to Heaven when the Nazis torpedoed it.

When the victorious Americans came home and prepared for college, he was ahead of the game because he had several years seniority in his job.  So it proved throughout his career at one of the great postwar industrial giants.  He provided the 1950s television life for his young family, then the solid 1960s family home for his teenagers.

By the early 1980s, his globe-girdling employer was a tottering, rusting giant.  Again he was lucky: fearing for his own health and the pension Grandma wouldn't get if he died, he chose the one-big-check payout option.  His peers went for the lifetime monthly pension check instead.  They did not foresee that the company's bankruptcy in a few short years would leave them with nothing, while Grandpa's money was safe in his own hands.

Then for thirty years, he retired - travel, family, camping, entertainment, and all the pleasures of middle-class life.  What's most astonishing is that, for his generation, this was not uncommon.  Is there anyone in mid-career today who thinks they'll ever be able to retire, much less enjoy three worry-free decades of good health?

Time catches up with us all, and so does the economy.  At the end, the long-term-care insurance company he'd steadfastly paid into for lo these many decades decided that they'd rather not pay anything out and retreated behind a blizzard of fine print.  When you're very ill at age 93 and they're a big company, they can probably outlast you.  It may not have mattered; while the care he received may not have been the best, how much can anyone do when your time finally comes?

I treasure the childhood time with my grandparents.  They had the luxury of just that - time - and they shared their time with me in full measure.

My own children know their grandparents, of course, but will never have the same close relationship because my father isn't retired.  He'd like to retire as my grandfather did, but he simply can't afford to stop working, and probably never can.  As for my future grandchildren and their grandfather, well, as we've observed before, more young people today believe in alien abductions than believe they'll get their government-promised retirement checks.

Grandpa's life spanned the American century, and now both are over.  Unlike Grandpa, though, America can live on; our national health problems, our economic crises, our cultural malaise, and our dysfunctional education collapse, severe as they are, are self-inflicted and entirely curable.  While there's life, there's hope if we want to work for it.

Things must have looked pretty grim in 1933 and 1941; but they got better, so much more better than the people alive at the time could have imagined, because they showed determination and made the right choices.  Will we show similar determination and wisdom today?

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Your last words, "will we show similar (I might say any) determination and
wisdom today?" is the biggest worry we have.... sigh.

March 30, 2012 12:31 PM

"Is there anyone in mid-career today who thinks they'll ever be able to retire"

Yes, I do. Most others I know - in my class, age and education level - all do as well. Start working on an IRA or 401k early and contribute to it aggressively, and you'll be surprised what it will have in only 15 or 20 years.

In a sense, if you really don't believe that individuals are capable of either (a) making enough money to retire or (b) being responsible enough to manage it, you're making the argument for Social Security and Medicare. 80 and 90 year olds (and even some 70 year olds) cannot work. It's simply not possible considering the few things they can actually do relative to how much better younger people (or technology) can do in their stead. That means that they're a sunk cost for upwards of 30 years. Whose sunk cost will it be? If we can't make enough or be responsible enough to do it on our own, some kind of central management makes sense.

March 30, 2012 1:19 PM

The sunk cost is actually worse than that. Consider that most everybody needs to be supported by somebody else for their first twenty years too. Traditionally that was by their parents, but there are so many people today with only one parent or a random set of step-parents that there are problems there as well.

Then there's the 30 years at the other end of life, so 50 years that have to be covered by 40 years of labor in the middle. That implies that half, at least, of one's income needs to be either spent on supporting children or saved for retirement.

Maybe people can work an extra 10 years, making it 50 years of labor and 40 non. Still, that math is seriously daunting and unprecedented in cultural history.

March 30, 2012 4:56 PM

@Ifon - you are making a heroic assumption. You are assuming that the government won't foul up the currency at ANY point along your 40 year path of saving for retirement.

I know lots of people who expected to retire a few years ago or in the next few years. They had saved diligently. The government smashed the economy and stole their retirements.

Governmetn spending stole my social security through inflation - I may get some money, but it won't be worth much. My 401K tanked. How is yours doing?

March 31, 2012 3:39 PM
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