Birthday in the balance
The Martha's Vineyard Commission hearings on the question of whether the benefits of turning 60 outweigh the detriments will continue next month. A decision in the matter, a source of bitter debate during five months of public hearings and subcommittee meetings, is not expected before spring. The file of letters, favoring or opposing the milestone, has grown to golf course controversy proportions, and the cards and letters keep on coming. A plastic US Postal Service tub brimming with unopened opinions awaits the attention of MVC staff.
Charged with guarding the beauty, environmental purity, and historic nature of the Vineyard, this logorrheaic regulatory body has deliberated itself into exhaustion over whether turning 60 ought to be approved or rejected. Certainly, 60-year-olds are consistent with the historic Vineyard, but what they contribute to the beauty and environmental health of the Island is debatable. No one envies the commissioners who have to decide this question. They are under a lot of pressure.
Of course, there's the possibility of approval with conditions. For instance, the regulators could require everyone turning 60 to give up driving and surrender their licenses. That way, increasingly doddery drivers and their over-the-hill autos would be removed from the roads, reducing pollution and congestion, and increasing safety. Transportation might be more aesthetic as well. Plus, to get around the 60-plus Islanders would have to use public transportation, which would help to fill the buses. Or, the benefits of people turning 60 might outweigh the detriments if, in exchange for permission to step up to 60, the people permitted to cross that watershed were required to give up their big houses and move into little apartments, so the young families could have the space they needed.
To get at the heart of the benefits and detriments equation, I thought I'd examine some age-gender population pyramids. You know, they are the graphic representations of an age cohort's travel through the population from birth to death. It looks a little like a python who swallows a big pig and takes a lifetime to digest it. The turning-60s are in the belly of the beast. They're nearing the late stages of digestion, and you know what that means. They're in there with their hula hoops, Ozzie Nelson, Howdy Doody, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Sky King. And, what has some commission members concerned, they're about to call in all the chips they've been counting on during the prime earning decades of their millions of lives. It's going to be a monstrous piece of change they'll be requiring, and somebody's got to pay. That's got to be a gigantic negative. No regulator in his right mind would grant a permit to create a boomer cohort passing 60 with its hands out. Their parents did their duty and asked for very little, but the turning-60s are coming to the table in strength, and they want to negotiate.
And, as the accompanying graph shows, a gross inversion of the human yield curve occurs precisely at the moment when Islanders achieve 60 years of age and propose to celebrate. Obviously, the boomer population cohort is not the only thing that's swelling. Turning 60 is a watershed moment. Some stuff declines, other stuff expands. It's a classic benefit-detriment puzzle, a calculus of diminishing capacity and expanding, unpredictable urges. It's as if it's all good one day and all bad the next. But really, it's a constantly changing balance of benefits and detriments. It's like a development of regional impact that has to return to the regulators daily for re-review. Once a DRI, always a DRI, et cetera. Still, as one farmer-commissioner noted, maybe one of those prostate cells could be injected into a piece of fruit, and the result might be a terrific peach the size of a cantaloupe that could be sold to the summer folk for six bucks or more a piece. There may be an economic upside here.
Writing for Newsweek in November, Jerry Adler wondered what lies ahead for the boomers: "Exactly how they plan to spend the years from 60 to 100 is of consuming interest to the cottage industry devoted to gazing into boomers' navels for them. Extrapolating from history is not very useful. 'They've lived a cyclical life,' says consultant Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project, contrasting it to the 'linear life' of their parents' generation, a straight line from college to office to the golf course. 'Just knowing their age doesn't tell you what life stage they're at. They reinvent themselves every three to five years. A boomer could be a brand-new dad, or a grandparent.'"
Right there, that's got to be a detriment. Boomers could reverse the decline in the school population, which means bigger school budgets, bigger schools, and bigger tax bills. No one wants all that.
In their fight for regulatory approval on Martha's Vineyard, the turning-60s, who came of age in the 1960s and gave up their Annette Funicello dreams in exchange for Victoria's Secret reality, present a decidedly mixed picture. It's not all good, for sure, but it's not all bad either.