“Retiring, but not expiring” - that's the formula Gérard Mermet uses to sum up the attitude of today's pensioners. Rid of parental responsibilities, still in good physical shape, and supported by savings and pension benefits, senior-citizens are everywhere and they are reclaiming their place in society. As is the case across the industrialised world, Europe is seeing the spread of new social and cultural practices - bringing new dependencies and new social bonds.
To paraphrase the analysis of sociologist Ronald Ingelhart: whilst for many years the elderly were considered materialist (i.e. dominated by traditional values such as saving and physical security) today they show many characteristics of a “post-materialist” group, like a sceptical attitude towards money, social competition, and the values of market society. Instead, they prioritise freedom of expression, their own self-realisation, and that of those around them. Beyond savings, fancy mod-cons and furniture, the aged just want to be carefree and joyful - like they were in the summer of their lives. These are the new political lobbyists, the social intermediaries, the influential 'grey vote' - as well as being our grandparents.
“Long live the ‘grandpa-boom’!”
Successful grandparenting, of course, affects us all - as underlined by Robert Rochefort, author of “Vive le papy-boom” (“Long live the grandpa-boom”), who points out how grandparents invest in the family tree and strengthen its vertical branches. The support is not only financial, but also physical and emotional - they care for the young, support their education, and share their experiences.
Far from being a forgotten recluse, today's Grandpa is socially active and joining more and more organisations. Over 33% do so, compared to less than 20% over 20 years ago. 30% of 60-75 year olds are active members of an organisation (triple the figure of 40 years ago) and it is not until after 80 years old that the number starts to decrease. This has led to a great widening of their social circle.
Organisations with an altruistic vocation or those which form groups to pursue leisure activities are most popular. This generation could be in a position to renovate civil society, helping encourage a democratic attitude like that heralded by de Tocqueville.
Using Money as a Springboard
This evolution is the logical consequence of having achieved physical and economic prosperity. The baby-boomers were born in the ruins of World War Two, engaged in the revolutionary dreams of May '68, and then committed themselves to making money, saving and spending. They have experienced great economic progress: the Dow Jones has multiplied by four since 1945, real estate prices have increased 500-fold. As a consequence, the aged hold 77% of financial assets and comprise 66% of shareholders. Having finally attained this degree of economic security for themselves and their children, it is natural that they are now concerned by the new, 'post-material' insecurities that are appearing in society.
In America the organisation representing the retired has become one of the most powerful lobbies, with more than 30 million members and 2000 employees - including 20 permanent lobbyists in Washington. The main aims of the organisation are to reduce medical costs and safeguard pension funding. Money therefore acts as springboard, but their life is still centred on society, politics, religion and family. Far from resigning from society, the elderly stand firm on their social terrain. Of course, post-materialism goes hand in hand with consumerism. As sociologist Jean-Didier Urbain points out, today's retired 'still see foreign travel as a luxury, whereas the next retired generation – the baby boomers – will see it as a right'.
To die from old age is a rare death
All over Europe senior citizens are becoming an energetic force which, far from being a drain on social resources, can renew civil society. Ingelhart summarises the post-materialist wave by explaining that “less than a generation ago, a materialist consensus reigned. Along with the right, Marxists agreed that economic growth was a good thing. The only thing that they disagreed on was the method of dividing the cake. Today, the upsurge of post-materialism is questioning economic growth as a value in itself and with it traditional views on work, authority, religion and sexual and social norms; the very idea of personal development is becoming a political force in itself".
We must not forget how much senior citizens offer us. As Montaigne remarked: “47 is an age at which few people arrive” and “to die from old age is a rare, singular and extraordinary death”.