Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Rights of The Gerontological Community

Social gerontology is an academic discipline whose day is coming. Prof Jill Quadagno, adviser to US presidents and senators, is in the right discipline to be sure of future funding and a continuing high public profile. Although it may sound odd to give a medical term a sociological slant, what the NYT calls "deteriorating conditions for retirees and older Americans in general" is giving new impetus to the movement to develop social policies that better address the issues faced by a population living longer than ever before in history.

The Gray Panthers are only a ghost of what they once were and both AARP and our Canadian version, CARP, do not make waves any more. This is hardly surprising for CARP, which is now part of Moses Znaimer's media empire and seems now to be little more than a marketing vehicle to sell services and stuff to us old'uns.  I feel a major cause of their decline in followership is that we live these days in an increasingly single-issue advocacy environment. It is one where, what Web guru Seth Godin calls 'tribes', form and reform around highly specific raw spots under the broader social umbrella.

Godin defines a tribe as a group of people, who are connected to one another, a leader and an idea. The idea around which each such tribe gels is increasingly tightly defined, e.g. raising or removing a mandatory retirement age. The wider issues of say, de facto age discrimination or the insulting portrayals of seniors widespread in advertising and the media, tend to lack leadership focus and ongoing traction. People today are not oriented on a lifetime basis to worthy causes, whether they be like Greenpeace or like the Lions, in the way of the past. We flounder with our loyalties through a sea of special issues, only sometimes stopping to help out before a new injustice catches our eye.

It is so much easier to register our objections online in places that will have little or no impact than to confront in person those whose behaviour towards us is unfair or unjust. As we have seen recently on the Maidan in Kiev, personal action is still what gets truly widespread media coverage. How we seniors, we who have reduced physical stamina and can be injured so easily, can best personally confront those who manage or personify social policies that prejudice our well-being, is still a work-in-progress. Until we figure it out, 'senior rights advocacy' remains only at a very early stage as a crusade.

There are more than enough of us caring about creating a world in which the new old have a firm place, but we are not concentrating on how best collectively to use modern tools like social media to effectively mobilize to create newsworthy action. Our tendency is to act individually by phone or in writing to object about conditions which our younger peers often feel we Boomers and pre-Boomers have little to complain about.

We are a large tribe that has no historical precedents to follow, since many people living past 65 is such a new phenomenon. It is a brand new assignment to design a world that is senior-friendly. We have made a start with the disabled. Now is the time to extend that to include the large cohort that is increasingly disadvantaged by an ever noisier, speedier, complicated and often hostile day-to-day environment.

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