LANCASTER, PA. — I lined up at the Amtrak ticket window behind four college students, androgynous in their jeans and sweat shirts, each looking like an unmade bed. Their canvas packs and plastic shopping bags, bearing sociology books and dirty laundry, were piled on the floor beside them. The red-vested agent behind the barred ticket window told them the fare to New York was $48, then waited patiently while they ransacked their pockets for dollars and change.
I stepped in behind them as they walked away. "New York, one way," I said. The agent cast an appraising eye at me then declared, "$41.80 - with the senior discount." I passed him my credit card with the $25,000 limit.
Age has its privileges in America, and one of the more prominent of them is the senior citizen discount. Anyone who has reached a certain age - in some cases as low as 55 - is automatically entitled to a dazzling array of price reductions at nearly every level of commercial life. Eligibility is determined not by one's need but by the date on one's birth certificate. Practically unheard of a generation ago, the discounts have become a routine part of many businesses - as common as color televisions in motel rooms and free coffee on airliners.
Senior citizen discounts are an idea with wings but no landing gear. Originally intended to give the needy elderly a break on a few necessities, they have become a technique for marketing luxury items. Originally open to persons 65 and older, the eligibility age has been dropping steadily. Accompanying this drop has been a rise in the number of older Americans, and demographers already have colored 21st century America gray.
Just as I was at the Amtrak window, people with gray hair often are given the discounts without even asking for them; yet, like millions of Americans above age 60, I am healthy and solvent. Businesses that would never dare offer discounts to college students or anyone under 30 freely offer them to older Americans. The practice is acceptable because of the widespread belief that "elderly" and "needy" are synonymous. Perhaps that once was true, but today elderly Americans as a group have a lower poverty rate than the rest of the population. To be sure, there is economic diversity within the elderly, and many older Americans are impoverished. But most of us aren't.
It is impossible to determine the impact of the discounts on individual companies. For many firms, they are a stimulus to revenue. But in other cases the discounts are given at the expense, directly or indirectly, of younger Americans. Moreover, they are a direct irritant in what some politicians and scholars see as a coming conflict between the generations.
Generational tensions are being fueled by continuing debate over Social Security benefits, which mostly involves a transfer of resources from the young to the old. Employment is another sore point. Buoyed by laws and court decisions, more and more older Americans are spurning the retirement dinner watch and the pat on the back in favor of staying on the job - thereby lessening employment and promotion opportunities for younger workers. And generational conflict is being stimulated by scenes like the one in Amtrak's Lancaster station.
Far from the trickle of charity they once were, senior citizen discounts have become a formidable economic privilege to a group with millions of members who don't need them.
Few would dispute that the needy elderly should be helped wherever possible, but giving should be according to need, not according to generation. Families have always recognized the need principle.
It no longer makes sense to treat the elderly as a single group whose economic needs deserve priority over those of others. Senior citizen discounts only enhance the myth that older people can't take care of themselves and need special treatment; and they threaten the creation of a new myth, that the elderly are self-seeking ingrates who are taking for themselves at the expense of children and other age groups. Senior citizen discounts are the essence of the very thing older Americans are fighting against - discrimination by age.
• William Ecenbarger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author in Lancaster, Pa.