All Commentary
Sunday, October 1, 1978

Liberty for Older Americans

Dr. Gresham, President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, Bethany College, Bethany, West Virginia, here reveals, in part, his plans for those busy years ahead.

Older Americans are in a serious identity crisis. Many of the norms for aging are not appropriate for bright and active older people. The norms are changing which adds to the problems of identity. The acceptable role for “grandparents,” “senior citizens,” and “older Americans” is anything but clear; but even when it is clarified, it turns out to be objectionable to any person who has a mind of his own. One cannot fit the stereotypes that have accumulated through years of misunderstanding.

Now that I am in my seventies, I have sensed in American life a sort of contempt for the old. I have tried hard to make allowances for any hypersensitivity or personal idiosyncrasies. The stark fact of contempt still remains. Old people are regarded as a sort of nuisance. The prevailing attitude seems to be, “Get out of the labor force and leave room for the young,” “get off the highway and let the young people who wish to go somewhere, go,” “these things cannot possibly mean anything to you so get out of the way and let us enjoy them.”

I have noticed a look of irritation and contempt when I must ask some mumbling young person to repeat a sentence because I do not clearly understand what he is saying. When a young person spills his coffee, it is just a mistake; but when I spill mine, it is because I am shaky and the person at hand may be irritated. The doctors say, “At your age you should not undertake this kind of treatment,” or an onlooker will say, “Just look at the old fool trying to be romantic.” Once it was said of children, “they should be seen and not heard.” This same attitude of contempt has now been transferred to older people. The attitude seems to be, “Shut up, Dad. Things have changed since you had anything to do with them.”

This attitude does not always have a hostile edge. It may be a benign compassion which increases the intensity of the sting. It is easier to face contempt than such an attitude as, “Oh, there, there now; of course you feel that way because you are old.” A person who is pitied is diminished in self-respect far more than a person who is scorned. Members of one’s own family may be swept up in the conventional attitudes toward aging to the extent that they feel a condescending attitude of pity toward anyone past sixty-five. What could be more infuriating to a highly competent septuagenarian than to have one say, “How remarkable. You still drive a car?” or “You are in your seventies. Do you still give lectures?”

There are times when those of us who are old need sympathy and pity and we do well to accept it with grace and gratitude; but there are other times when we deserve respect and we resent being exposed to the so-called “compassion for the old” which is about the most obnoxious attitude anyone could hold for us. When we are capable and qualified people, we should be regarded as equals where this is appropriate, superiors where we deserve it, as inferiors when the appraisal is just; but in every case, we have the right to stand on our own feet and be honorable, respected people.

The young people I know, of course, reflect none of these attitudes, but this is a personal matter. My students regard me as a contemporary. The contempt appears only in impersonal relationships.

A little bit of common sense will tell any reflective person that many people have a whole new surge of vitality, interest and ability in their sixties. This is particularly true for people in public life, people in business, professions and in finance. The stereotype of the spent old person at sixty is about one hundred per cent wrong. Yet older people face major discrimination when they attempt to market their talents. I have been shocked by my contemporaries in law and medicine who are still active in their professions who say to me, “Oh, at your age, I do not think you should take on anything else.” Here are intelligent people who would not give up their own responsibilities for anything, advising their patients and clients to live by the distorted norms.

These norms, however, are changing. Once the old people in America were few, but now we are many. With the increase in life expectancy and the interesting configuration of population growth, old people have come to be a powerful political force. Now eleven per cent of the American people are past sixty-five. As the numbers have been increasing, so have the skills and methods of political clout. Many old people have come to be self-conscious exponents of a minority seeking a voice in public affairs. The large associations of people in their sixties or older are as numerous and active as any associations in America.

Certainly I cannot speak for other people who have lived six or seven decades; but I can speak for myself and, by conversation, insight and study, reflect the attitudes and opinions as well as the needs and interests of many contemporaries. Some of the points that I make here may be widely disputed, as I find myself disputing some of the most vigorous attempts of some aging activists to get special interest legislation approved by the Congress. The privilege of differing viewpoints is certainly an earned prerogative of the mature. When I say we want these things, I really mean that these are the things that seem to me paramount for those of us who have reached the sixties and beyond.


Who has earned the right to personal and political freedom more than a person who has lived through six or seven decades? Some people do not like liberty and some have become so inured to tyranny that it seems comfortable. Taking all this into account, I am still convinced that I speak for my contemporaries when I say we dislike all these so-called “mandatory” programs that affect our lives. We dislike the arbitrary nature of Social Security, but after we have paid the tax, we resent the unfair discrimination with regard to earning power. We resent the unjust discrimination written into the income tax law which denies older professionals deductions for activities needed to preserve their professional image and self-esteem. Nothing could be more distasteful than a law requiring a person to work, or not to work, until a certain age regardless of what that age might be. What is wanted is freedom to work as long as one wishes and for as long as anybody wishes to employ him.

This same resentment against the loss of individual liberty holds for such things as the consumer movement as it bears on senior citizens. No self-respecting old person prefers decisions out of Washington to those of his own taste and inclination. It should be my privilege to choose the food I wish to buy. Nothing could infuriate me more completely than to pay taxes, against my will, to employ some pretentious ass to sit at a desk in Washington and tell me what I should purchase. I find the whole idea revolting and many of my contemporaries feel the same way. I keenly resent being told what kind of car I can drive, when I can drive it and how fast, assuming of course that I stay within the bounds of propriety or what is right and decent and safe for everybody involved.

Even more keenly, I resent being told what drugs I am free to purchase. It is the duty of government to require clear labeling and to vigorously prosecute those who, by force or fraud, misrepresent any product. It is most certainly not the function of the government to forbid me the use of saccharin, for example, when I have been told what is involved in using it. The paternal “Papa knows best” attitude of the Food and Drug Administration is beginning to infuriate all of us who have been around for awhile.

I greatly admire Maggie Kuhn and her astonishing success in organizing the Gray Panthers. I could not agree with her more with regard to “those rotten myths” about old people. We are not all alike. We are not all crotchety, with shriveling brains and diminishing gender. However, I have far less faith in government to solve our problems than has she. I see her pressing for a consumer movement with a new government bureau for consumer advocacy. This will only produce another layer of bureaucracy and consequent inflation and thereby damage all of us who are aging.

I long for individual liberty; not benign regimentation that robs me of my livelihood by enlarging the government until I am taxed into penury. I believe that many of my contemporaries feel the same way. The only march against the government I could lead would be one which bears a placard, “Get off our backs.” We would be perfectly able to solve our own problems if we had some liberty and could get some relief from inflation.

Inflation, the Enemy of the Old

By all odds, the most horrendous threat to old people in America is inflation. The word is poorly understood by most people, even though it has a very simple origin. The word “inflation” simply means inflation of the money supply whether it be by printing press or credit. The result of increased supply is higher prices and wages. The reason governments all over the world turn to inflation is that they find it more palatable to increase the available money than to increase taxes when they need additional revenues to pay for expensive government projects.

At one time, the amount of money governments could make available was limited by some kind of standard such as gold or silver. When these standards were abandoned, governments felt free, when pressed, to increase the money supply at will with absolutely ruinous economic consequences in some cases—such as once happened in Germany, Brazil and even France. Inflation is worldwide and has been going on for a long time. The rise in wages, for example, is dramatically shown by the nursery rhyme:

She shan’t have but a penny a day because she can’t work any faster.

Since Elizabethan times, prices and wages have risen consistently even though there were periods of deflation and falling prices. In my own boyhood, the standard wage for help on the ranch was a dollar a day, room and board. There was a common chuckle about the Irishman who was so pleased with his new wage of a dollar a day that he boasted, “If I work a million days, I’ll have a million dollars!” The recent settlement of the United Mine Workers strike left some of my friends who work in the mines disappointed because they did not quite get the one hundred dollars a day they were requesting. An increase in wages from a dollar a day to one hundred dollars a day in less than a century suggests the impact of inflation. Most of this impact has come in the recent past.

I have called inflation the greatest enemy of old people because it is a thief that takes away the living earned by a lifetime of hard work. Economists have made the word “inflation” so complicated that many old people do not understand it even though they are robbed by it. What they do understand are the skyrocketing prices that inflation has brought about. Not long ago, a retired couple could go out for dinner for less than ten dollars for a first class meal including refreshments and gratuities. Now the same couple may face a check of twenty-five dollars minimum to more than one hundred dollars in some places. A car that fairly recently cost four thousand dollars is now selling for eight to ten thousand dollars. A loaf of bread, which once cost ten or fifteen cents is now pushing up toward seventy-five cents or a dollar. Everyone understands the meaning of skyrocketing prices when one’s hard-earned retirement income is frozen at a previous level. The retirement income that once meant a life of ease and plenty now means a life of poverty and anxiety.

It is time for those of us who are older to understand what powers these rising prices. The principal villain in all inflation is the government itself, since it is the sole source of the money supply. That money supply gets out of hand because the government needs more and more money to carry on more and more projects. Politicians are enamored of voting more money to pay for projects to assist or please people, since this is the way for a politician to get votes when running for public office. Bureaucrats are eager to increase their position and power by developing larger and larger organizations to carry on bigger and more exciting programs.

Wartime Spending

When an uncontrollable catastrophe such as a war comes along, inflation simply goes wild. Prices and wages rise and the people in government, for very good reasons from their standpoint, do not let them come down when the war is over. People in business or industry likewise look with disfavor on falling prices. Nobody likes to see his wage reduced. One round of inflation follows another and all of us are robbed.

The dollar today will purchase just over half what it would have ten years ago. All of us are going broke at an alarming rate of speed.

I feel sick at heart when I hear my friends talk about bringing inflation down to six or seven per cent. Think of an old person with his money in a savings bank at five per cent and losing one or two per cent of his capital every year and realizing no true income whatever on his money. To be sure, he has a dollar and five cents at the end of the year, but the purchasing power of that has fallen below his original investment.

Adding to the problem of rising prices is the additional problem of increasing taxes. Rising prices and increasing taxes are the jaws of the vise in which all of us are caught. These taxes rise because special interest groups ask more and more from government. Alan Meltzer, my cherished colleague who teaches economics at Carnegie Mellon University, has pointed out that governments grow because benefits are concentrated and costs are diffused. This is a brilliant way of saying that when some special interest group, such as those of us in education, ask for a government subsidy, the subsidy means a lot to us but does not cost anybody very much when it is spread over the entire nation. The people who have no interest in education are not inspired to mobilize against the program.

When those of us who are in education push hard enough, everybody else goes along and we have an additional government program. Everybody gets into the same kind of an act. Depressed industry demands help; labor unions demand help; minorities demand help; environmentalists demand help; safety crusaders demand support, the military requires more and more, and those of us who are older get into the act with a series of new requests. Layer after layer of government bureaucracy is added and the costs of government build to the point where more and more taxes must be levied. Even this will not suffice and the money supply is increased to cover the expense of new projects not covered by tax revenues. The vise thus squeezes the old person until he is forced onto welfare. This, in turn, increases the burgeoning costs of government.

Mobilize for Less Government

What can we do about this vicious situation? The answer is that we can mobilize for less government instead of more, for less taxes instead of more benefits. There is a rising revolt against the taxes that are robbing old people of their homes. Everywhere a person turns, he is taxed: he pays sales tax, he pays a tax on gasoline and any number of specific items, he is taxed on most of the services, taxed on the theater, at the restaurant, at the hotel. He pays tax on his property, his travel, his federal income tax which may be almost confiscatory to many old people. In most places, he pays state income tax and sometimes local tax in addition. It is time for us to let the world know that there can be no “goodies” from the government without taxes that come out of the hides of the people.

Many of us are enchanted today with such expensive government programs as come to us from those crusaders who want to protect the environment, the consumers, the minorities, the schools, the cities, the railroads and all of the many services that are proclaimed as highly useful and required of any socially responsible nation. Many of these are good and necessary, but some of them we must learn to do ourselves rather than create expensive government bureaucracies that will drive old people into ruin and poverty in the next few years unless some remedy is found. Old people, more than anyone else, should know that somebody has to pay into the government before the government can pay anything out to anybody.

The great challenge for those of us who are past middle age is that we bring some kind of compelling influence to bear against our enemy which is inflation. Since government is the principal factor involved, we must let our politicians know that we need less government instead of more, less intervention, and less meddling in our lives. We can no longer afford the luxury of being taxed to death on the one hand and inflated to death on the other. We do not look with favor on becoming destitute wards of the state when we know that the state, itself, is on the way to bankruptcy. We seem to have no satisfactory alternative to an all-out fight against inflation. The best people in the government realize the predicament and may even help our cause.

If I could speak to the appropriate people in the government in behalf of my contemporaries, I would say, treat us with respect, give us an opportunity to work and to learn, protect us from crime and, beyond that, as much as possible reduce public expenditures and pursue monetary policies that will reduce inflation. The things we lose by the robberies of criminals are nothing in comparison to the amount we lose when we are robbed by our own government. Inflation is an insidious form of robbery. Anyone who has seen his fixed income dwindle at such a rate as to threaten his livelihood has most certainly been robbed.

I am not content to join with my contemporaries in a most pleasant game, mentioned by Dr. Eric Berne, called “Ain’t it Awful?” We love to gather round the watering places and discuss public affairs. One mentions his taxes and we all say, “Ain’t it awful?”; another mentions inflation and we all say, “Ain’t it awful?”; another mentions crime and we all say, “Ain’t it awful?”. And God knows we have fun but we get nowhere. We would do well to give up the game and go to work.

Make Your Own Climate

I have said that the social and political climate in America is not fair to the aging and this is true. This does not imply that the aging fare any better in Western Europe. For the most part, they are much worse off. There are some cultures where old people are venerated but this, too, is a distortion of justice. I call to my contemporaries to rise above the difficulties that confront old people today and to make something of the rest of their lives just as I intend to make something of mine. The most inspiring story can be told of aging people who earn enough and invest wisely enough to withstand inflation; people who are strong enough to overcome all the stereotypes; people who are public spirited enough to exercise some influence on public opinion; people who have put the lie to those who say “old people can’t do anything.” All around me are people who have experienced the surge of the sixties and are having the best time of their lives.

It is much easier to sit around and complain than it is to perform. Anybody who lives in America has sufficient liberty to make something of his own life. Retired people have the best opportunity of all. They can learn something and thereby disprove a stereotype; but, even more, enjoy the thrill of discovery. They can create poetry, music, sculpture, history, ax handles, jigsaw puzzles, gardens, cuisine, clothing, gadgets and a whole multitude of things that bring profit as well as joy. People differ in talent. Some are best fitted to lead while others prefer to be good followers. Both are important. Older people have an opportunity to exercise true leadership in government, community, religion and secular affairs. There is no time like now for an aging person to make his life count for something. Old age is not merely golden years, but golden opportunity.

  • Dr. Perry E. Gresham (1907-1994) was President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor, Bethany College. Bethany, West Virginia.