At the age of 86, George Seldes has just finished his 19th book. The venerable muckraker of the press during six decades of reporting and investigative effort believes that today’s press is generally better than yesterday’s in printing facts about big business and other formerly taboo subjects. But in his new book, “Even the Gods Can’t Change History,” an updated sequel to earlier volumes on the press titled “You Can’t Print That” and “Lords of the Press,” Seldes gives illustrations showing how far the medium has to go to meet his standards for a free society. Although it would be nostalgic to describe the influence that Seldes had on many journalists such as Jack Anderson or the younger crop of reporters who are rediscovering his courageous newsletter In Fact (which was published during the Forties), his contemporary lesson is a different one. It has to do with older people continuing to work.
SELDES IS ONE of a growing number of older Americans who never want to hear of retirement in the sense of no longer doing any work. To produce his latest book, Seldes and his wife would go every week to the library at Dartmouth College from their home in Hartland-4 Corners, Vt. There they would digest enormous amounts of material about abuses of power and the way the medium covered or ignored these stories.
It can be said that writers have an easier time of avoiding retirement because they are self-employed. That is true. But more Americans are either refusing to retire at an arbitrary age unless they are compelled to by company policy or are taking up other active work useful to the community.
In Washington, D.C., Zachariah D. Blackistone, who is a mere 106 years old, still goes to work every day at the cluster of florist shops that he established. In West Palm Beach, Fla., 74-year-old Ada Vladimir organized and leads a consumer group of the elderly to fight against what she calls “utility and landlord ripoffs.”
From Philadelphia, 72-year-old Maggie Kuhn logs over 100,000 miles a year helping to organize chapters and activities of the Grey Panthers, an elderly-citizens group she started in Pennsylvania about five years ago. A current yogurt ad on television features an 89-year-old Russian man being patted approvingly by his mother. Scientists who have studied the remarkable longevity in that part of Soviet Central Asia believe that doing daily work and being needed by relatives, friends and neighbors account for some of the reasons why many live to the age of 100 and beyond.
OUR INDUSTRIALIZED society and our mass-transitless residential areas have served to isolate older people. This social state has extreme consequences, not only for older people but also for other age groups, particularly the youngsters who rarely see grandmother or grandfather. Further, the segregation of oldsters in elderly housing blocks or retirement communities is receiving massive promotion by developers who aren’t paid to think of deeper social consequences
But all over the country, older people are beginning to question their powerlessness and their exclusions. Common grievances such as inflation, consumer fraud, unfair taxation and poor medical care are forging a common consciousness of how powerful they could be if they united around these causes. Politicians know the voting power of older people. Corporations have a shrewd analysis of their buying power. The work of older people who have chosen to retire from their occupations, then, is to mobilize these powers at the community and national levels. It is the work of democracy which they now have the time to advance.
If President Jimmy Carter wants to encourage citizen participation, he could bring together active older people from around the country who could tell their story through the media so that many others their age and younger can learn that they can do similar things in their community. Readers who would like to see such a White House convocation should send their suggestions to Greg Schneiders, Director of Special Projects at the White House.