Chapter 6: Politics of the Undead — Let’s Get This Party Started

ZIP — The Zoomer Inclusive Party.  A pipe dream? Maybe not.

One of the great conundrums of the  aging phenomenon has been the failure, till now, of the older demographic to organize politically or to effect political results in any enduring way. In terms of impact, the converse seems true: for years, politicians have been treating us as if we’re already dead. Here’s a bulletin: we’re not! We’re not only not dead, we’re extremely alive. We have issues that burn to be addressed. We have experience, expertise and, yes, wisdom. We have the numbers and we have the wealth. Why, then, don’t we have the clout?

One reason is the squeamishness politicians — and the rest of us — feel about aging, with its uncomfortable companion effects of decline, pain, mortality and death. Language is at the core of this puzzle. “Everyone wants to live long,” goes the old maxim, “but no- body wants to be old.” Complicating the word “old” and its many variations, such as “mature,” “senior” and “elder,” is the stubborn cultural perception that average life expectancy is still in the 60s or early 70s when, in fact, many of us are working our way well into our 80s and 90s, as alert as ever. Why waste political capital on what is popularly seen as ghost time?

Another impediment to our political organization has been the growing tide of alarm about the great imminent tsunami that Boomers represent; the vast amounts of money that will shortly be pouring out to support the aged; the depletion of the provincial treasuries; the destruction of the younger generation’s future. (A recent example is The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future — And Why They Should Give It Back, a book by David Willets, a sitting Conservative member in the British Parliament.)

This allegation is clearly overblown but creates the kind of bad-press atmosphere in which organizing politically is considered unbecoming and self-indulgent — even by Zoomers themselves. We’re hard-wired to care about the generations that come next, so we tend to feel guilty about thinking of ourselves first. The result is that while it’s quite acceptable for people to organize along class, language or regional lines, senior activism is a non-starter.

While politicians talk about the need for more money for daycare, when health care for the elderly comes up, the talk turns to triage and the prudence of giving an 87-year-old another heart valve. Frail infants are the recipients of money and medical effort because they have their whole lives ahead of them. Frail older people are not because they don’t. And while political organizations regularly brag about infusions of youth into their ranks, I’ve yet to hear a political party celebrate the white-haired wisdom of its membership or point out that age tends to make people less erratic and more trustworthy. The modern requirement is to clothe candidates in wetsuits, put them on bikes or have them run marathons regardless of their age.

But enough moaning. We have come not to bury the Zoomer Inclusive Party but to invent it. Our first step is clear: we have to create a movement that appeals to us first, then the wider electorate. This, coincidentally, was exactly the strategy behind our removing the bylaw that restricted CARP membership to those 50 and over. The idea was and is to bring our children and grandchildren into the organization because they have an interest in things that affect the health and quality of life of their parents and grandparents. The resistance I’ve met to this logical notion and to the simple proposition that an organization composed only of the elderly soon dies out is quite baffling.

Our Zoomer Inclusive Party must convert negatives into positives, thus positioning us as the wise Party, the non-impulsive Party, the Party that’s seen it all. By nature, we’re far more inclined to  pay attention to the younger generation’s concerns than they are to pay attention to ours. What’s instinct for us is duty for them. Plus we are their future; while we will never be 18 again, practically all will get to be 70. They are Zoomers-in-waiting.

In fact, the conflation of these two ideas, that on the one hand we’re committed to addressing the welfare of the younger generation as well as our own and that, on the other, we’re all in the same boat regardless is the perfect underpinning for ZIP’s platform. No one is in a better position than our generation to redraw the parameters of aging in our society; and the trickle-down effect of that redrawing may make it the most mutually comprehensive, mutually beneficial program of reform undertaken in this country in the past half-century. Distilled, the subtext of our party’s message for youth is: not only aren’t we trying to destroy your prospects, we’re actually assuring your future.

Attracting the younger membership, though, is only one half of the puzzle; the other half is making an impact on the current political establishment. “I would call that strategy the soft sell,” says Susan Eng, lawyer, ex-chair of the toronto Police Services Commission, agitator extraordinaire and now full-time vice-president for advocacy at CARP. “The Kumbaya approach, we’re all in this together, we can create a better world, imagine all the people. It’s a good strategy, but my preference is the hard sell because my message is to the political world more than to the marketing side. To get a toehold in the public discourse when we’ve been relegated to the side-lines for so long, you can’t say, ‘Please sir, can I have your attention?’ We have to say, ‘Ignore us at your peril.’ As a political party goes, you tell them, ‘We could not only be an effective opposition, we could be an effective government.’ And if they ask, ‘You and what army?’ you say, ‘The people — 70 per cent of whom vote regularly. The bellwether group who are always 70 per cent in tune with the polls. That’s our army.’ ”

So we have a core message and a soft- and hard-sell way of transmitting it. But do we have any real-life models of canny Zoomers already putting this fusion into action? How about David Crombie, once the “tiny perfect mayor of Toronto,” now a member of CARP’s advisory board. He is also a founder (along with John Sewell, Karl Jaffery and Barb Caplan, Zoomers all) of Toronto Votes 2010, an organization dedicated to raising political awareness and civic participation in upcoming municipal and federal elections.

Federally, the Conservatives and Liberals are essentially deadlocked in percentage of support, somewhere in the low 30s. The NDP draws between  10 and 15 per cent, the Green Party 10 per cent (as long as there’s no actual election) and the Bloc Québecois comes in at about eight per cent. That accounts for more than 90 per cent of electoral preference. If ZIP could persuade just Zoomers alone (who represent 40 per cent of the population) to vote their own interests to the point of returning 10 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, its influence, in this day of perpetual minority government, could be dramatic.

Party leader? How about Hazel McCallion, 89, who’s been mayor of mississauga, Ont.,  for 31 consecutive years (she took 92 per cent of the vote in the last election) and who says as long as she’s alive, she’ll run again, against whomever, whenever. Deputy leader? Jean Chrétien, a mere stripling at 76, is still arguably the best natural politician in the country and certainly the most dangerous person to make fun of. Election bauble? How about finally promising to make the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean part of Canada, thereby letting Canuck Zoomers stop pretending that Victoria is warm in January. Secret party manifesto? What else but george Carlin’s immortal:

 “The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? Death! What’s that? A bonus? I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs and alcohol, you party, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become  a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating … and you finish off as an orgasm!”

Who wouldn’t vote for that?

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.