Facing Retirement, an Abstraction Becomes Real

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton. 2009. “Facing retirement, an abstraction becomes real.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (December 9): 13A.

In “Four Quartets,” a lengthy set of poems published in the early 1940s, T. S. Eliot wrote “What might have been is an abstraction, remaining a perpetual possibility, only in a world of speculation.” To translate his poetry into prose, Eliot was arguing that the past cannot be changed and the future is unknowable.

I think of Eliot words in relationship to my own present. Unlike most of you, even you Baby-Boomers, I have just turned 65. Celebrating that birthday has felt like passing through a mythical gateway. On one side are the joys and pleasures of youth followed by the demands and accomplishments of middle-age. On the other lies an unknowable future, a mere abstraction until you get there.

Having passed through that gateway, I have also entered the world of Medicare and Social Security. It’s an interesting world, which most of you have not yet seen. I’m just learning the Medicare part of it, discerning the difference between Parts A though D, discovering that I have choices to make with regard drug coverage, supplements, and the like. Luckily for me, all I have had to do so far is sign up for Part A, which deals with hospitalization. The rest is fairly complicated and will take some time for me to sort out. Social Security has been much easier to navigate. Eligible for full benefits next November (when I’ll turn 66), I have chosen to begin receiving slightly reduced benefits right now.

Entering this world of Social Security and Medicare causes me to reflect on the value of those two governmental programs and to speculate about what the present would be like had those two programs not been created in 1935 and 1965 respectively. In brief, vast numbers of older people would be poor and much more likely to become sick and/or die from the lack of adequate health care.

Consider just this one fact: in 1959, 35.2 percent of people over 65 had incomes below the poverty line. Because of Social Security and Medicare, by 2007 that percentage had fallen to 9.7.

Entering this world also makes me reflect on the fact that, just as governmental programs first had to be created before they could exist, so too they could be made to disappear in the blink of an eye. Countering the claim in Eliot’s poem, some political actors constantly strive to change the past.

It also makes me ponder how easy it would be to pressure elected officials to change those programs in ways that enhance my own self-interest. Thinking only about the particularities of my own life, I might tell them to do nothing that would cut MY benefits. Or I might go to a “Town Hall” meeting and shout, I don’t want government messing with MY Medicare! Or I might draw large benefits from these and related programs while condemning politicians and big government.

So here I am at the gateway, just on the other side of 65. For me the possibility of entering older age is no longer a mere abstraction. It is a palpable reality that I feel every day. Soon it will not be an abstraction to the tens of millions of Baby-Boomers trailing behind me. And then to the rest of you

At this moment we collectively face a crucial choice. We can pressure our elected officials to act in our narrow self-interest and to preserve our benefits ad infinitum. Or we can encourage them to adopt reforms that will reduce the total cost of health care while extending benefits to the un- and under-insured.

I know where I stand. Sixty-five and only months away from full retirement, I want all my fellow Americans to have access to decent and affordable health care, both now and in the future. No longer should access to this kind of care be a “perpetual possibility” trapped forever in Eliot’s “world of speculation.”

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