I went to a dinner party at which one topic of discussion was an impending government shutdown. A man in his 70s maintained that this was going to be a terrible event. I asked “Why would it be worse than all of the previous government shutdowns?” (Wikipedia has a list of 18 since 1976). His answer was the Republicans and Democrats in Congress had less of a “dialog” than before. I estimated that there was no way that the shutdown could last more than 45 days, on the grounds that “All politicians love to tax citizens and then spend the money; they just have a few disagreements around the edges.” I said that no previous shutdown had lasted more than 21 days (yay, smartphone!) and therefore 45 days would be a real statistical outlier. He persisted in arguing that American politics is completely different (and worse) than at any time in the past. (This was Cambridge, mind you, so 100 percent of the blame for the degradation is due to “crazy Republicans.”)
The government does seem to be shutting down, thus proving this guy right so far. But on the other hand I’m wondering why the situation seemed so much more dire to the oldest person at the table than to the younger guests. He’d lived through at least 17 previous shutdowns, not to mention a world war, and somehow everything that turned out all right.
Other old people that I know have access to the same news as young and middle-aged folks yet they are much more concerned about unusual weather and foreign conflict. If they are freaked out about floods I might point out that most of the world is enjoying sunshine. If they are freaked out about U.S. economic stagnation I will point out that the world is still improving because China is much more populous and their economy is growing robustly. If they are freaked out about the fact that various people in the Middle East hate each other I will point out that there are lots of peaceful parts of the world. None of my “look at the places that the news media isn’t bothering to cover right now” statements have ever helped.
So… for the readers…
- Am I correct in that the same events are more worrisome/upsetting to older Americans?
- If so, why? Given that they have fewer years of life expectancy, shouldn’t the potential for long-term damage be less frightening?
One of my theories is that people have only a fixed number of things that they can worry about. A person between 30 and 50 may use up all of his or her potential for worrying with job- and kid-related concerns. He or she simply doesn’t have leftover slots to care about Syria, Congress, the melting of assorted continents, etc. Once comfortably retired, however, and all children settled in their own homes, a person will naturally fill up those worry slots with issues from the media.
If my theory is correct the only sensible way to live in retirement is with a complete ban on news media.
[Oh yes, back to the shutdown. I'm going to go on record with a prediction that the future will look like the past. The average length of a previous shutdown was about 8 days. So I will predict that this shutdown lasts 8 days. If it lasts until the end of October I am going to invite all of my readers to join me at Margarita's for a Taco Gigante on my dime! If it goes beyond the 45-day limit above, they won't be doing Taco Gigantes anymore so I will host a blood donation party at Children's Hospital in Boston.]