The Common Good

COMMENTARY: It’s Time for Baby Boomers to Cede Control

As baby boomers start clicking the senior citizen box on travel fares, I want to say a word to my generation and to the one that preceded us. 

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It is time for us to get out of the way.

I don't mean easing into wheelchairs. For the most part, we're way too healthy and energetic for that. I mean the harder work of relinquishing control.

I see that need most clearly in religious institutions, where I work. But I see it elsewhere, too, from taxpayer "revolts" led by seniors against today's schoolchildren to culture wars that we won't let die.

At a stage in life when God wants us to "dream dreams," we are fighting against change and  empowering demagogues who use our control issues as cover for their soak-the-people, feed-the-rich schemes – including playing political football with our own Medicare and Social Security benefits.

I see this most clearly in mainline Protestant churches, which are literally dying under the weight of old ideas, old methods, old expectations, and old leaders who behave as if they would rather see their congregations die than yield control.

Healthiest congregations tend to be startups, not because young startup pastors are more capable, but because they don't have older members standing in their way.

I see it in suburban communities where older taxpayers are rejecting school spending that would benefit a younger generation's children.

I see it in progressive seminaries, where older leaders are still fighting feminist battles in a post-feminist era. I see it in the Roman Catholic Church, where old men are forcing yet another generation to fight the abortion battle that gave them purpose after Vatican II.

I saw it in crowd shots at both parties' national conventions. In a nation where the average age is said to be 25 and the nonwhite presence is growing, both parties seemed oddly old and, at the GOP's convention, oddly white.

I doubt that younger cadres are any wiser or more skilled. Many, in fact, are proving unprepared for complex decision-making. But the answer to that is training and experience on the job, not exclusion.

I doubt that today's fresh ideas have magical properties. Some new ideas in technology seem shallow and trivial. But fresh ideas at 25 can mature into better ideas at 35 -- if their creators are allowed air to breathe. 

In what seems like another lifetime, we once shouted for attention and demanded that older cadres get out of our way. Fine. That's what youth does. But we are still shouting for attention, still demanding control. Why?

I think many are addicted to control. By that I mean an addiction comparable to alcoholism, an addiction we will feed at any cost even though it makes our lives unmanageable.

I think many are afraid of aging.  We hear "senior" and think loss, frailty, sagging, and dependency. We think empty days and empty bank accounts. Clinging to control seems a way to avoid time's "ever-rolling stream."

In fact, thanks to improved health care, many in their 60s and 70s feel as healthy and energetic as ever. I think we could be using our health to serve. Serve those who truly are on the final laps and dealing with loneliness, depression, anxiety and failing health. Serve our beloved institutions by saying yes when young leaders ask us to be foot soldiers. And serve our communities by caring for the least.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Via RNS.

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