Challenging the Bias That Measures by Age

IN Japan, where reverence for older people has traditionally run deep, today is Respect for Elders Day. Local governments are holding celebrations, and young people are encouraged to call their grandparents or send them a gift.

The quaintly named event, which began in the mid-1960s, sounds charming. Yet it raises a question: If ``respect'' needs to be publicly and self-consciously promoted, does the occasion signal that old values of obedience and service to parents and elders are losing ground?

Just four days before Japan's celebration, Americans - a few of them, at least - observed Grandparent's Day. This 15-year-old event has never sparked much interest, perhaps because grandparents are usually honored on Mother's Day and Father's Day. Even the few greeting cards manufactured for the occasion - many featuring teddy bears and woodland creatures - reflect an uncertainty about just who the recipients and the senders are.

No such vagueness about roles exists for one growing group of grandparents who need more than warm and fuzzy cards to meet their considerable needs - those raising grandchildren on their own. A study released last week by the American Association of Retired Persons finds more than 3 million families headed by grandparents. Yet many of these low-income grandparents have trouble getting child-rearing aid from state-welfare caseworkers because they are ``nonparents.''

Please pass the respect - along with money for food, clothing, and rent.

Respect also appears to be in short supply for another group - older workers. With each new corporate downsizing, senior employees become more expendable. Even 50-year-olds now routinely qualify for early retirement. Age-bias suits are increasing, but such discrimination remains hard to prove.

What an irony: While life expectancy has increased dramatically, people's working life has decreased dramatically.

Needed: Respect for Older Workers Year.

An entire year was, in fact, what members of the European Community had in mind when they designated 1993 as the European Year of Older People. Its purpose was to recognize the potential of the elderly and to improve public attitudes toward them. It also sought to call attention to pensions and health-care issues and to consider ways to include older people in the work force. Yet the observance remained one of the year's best-kept secrets, garnering almost no publicity.

Even so, older Europeans represent a force to be reckoned with politically. In Holland, two fledgling groups, the Old People's Union and Union 55, won seven seats in general elections in May. Another party, Waardig Ouder Worden - Growing Old with Dignity - won 3.4 percent of the vote in Flanders and Brussels in Belgium. And in Germany, the Grays - modeled after the Greens environmental party - hope to win seats in the October general election. Eamon McInerney, the European Commission officer in charge of the 1993 Year of Old People, foresees a time when major political parties will be forced to consciously woo the ``gray vote'' as growing legions of older voters send a warning: Ignore us at your peril.

It is a long way, both in distance and culture, from the Japanese grandparents quietly receiving gifts from grandchildren today to the European retirees fighting politically to preserve their pensions and other benefits. But the insistent message linking older generations everywhere is clear: Token manifestations of respect are not enough.

The need to be needed and useful, to remain a valued member of a family or other group, does not disappear with the presentation of a gold watch. And a community that does not, in turn, need and welcome the contributions of all its members, from children to elders, cannot be considered truly a community with the full and enriched diversity the word implies.

May the Japanese take satisfaction in their celebration. A day of respect for elders is a beginning. But respect will be meaningful finally only when worth and achievement are recognized without boundaries of age, every day in the year.

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