BOSTON -- Did you miss this in the post-election news? Sen. Robert Byrd, 91, announced that he will give up the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee to Sen. Daniel Inouye, 84. The torch has passed to a new generation.
I don't say this snidely, although I was charmed at Inouye's hope that he was "sufficiently prepared to succeed my mentor." The rite of passage reminded me a little bit of Prince Charles, who just turned 60 as king-in-waiting. Waiting, that is, for his 82-year-old mother to pass the crown.
But I say it, rather, because this year, the air has been filled with talk of generational change. Ted Kennedy, the ailing elder of Democratic politics, set the tone when he took his brother's torch and passed it verbally to Barack Obama. Since then, torches have illuminated the conversation.
In 1961, the transition from 70-year-old Ike to 43-year-old JFK symbolized the arrival of the postwar New Frontier. Now the election of Obama is alternately described as the arrival of the Twitter age, the Jon Stewart era.
Of course, Obama took that mantle of change on his own shoulders last year when he addressed his civil rights elders at the 42nd anniversary of the Selma march. Expressing gratitude to the "Moses generation," he identified himself as part of the "Joshua generation." If Moses led the people through the desert years, Joshua was anointed to lead them into the Promised Land. Obama both praised and put the "Moses Generation" in its place: history.
Generational change was not without its tension this year. In the black community, Jesse Jackson bristled at his minor role. The man who had stood with Martin Luther King Jr. and won more than a dozen presidential primaries was heard on an open mike slamming the new kid on his turf. In turn, 67-year-old Jesse Sr. was upbraided by his 42-year-old son, Jesse Jr., for his "ugly rhetoric." Yet on election night, one of the most emotional images was of the tears trailing down the senior Jackson's face.
There was generational tension as well among women during the primary when many second-wave feminist mothers supporting Hillary split with daughters supporting Obama. Mothers felt daughters had "sold out." Daughters bristled at mothers patronizing or, should I say, matronizing them. It was, perversely, their joint opposition to Sarah Palin that healed this rift.
Still, it does seem odd that the imagery of generational change would be in the forefront right now when the most profound social change may be from something else: longevity.
When the torch was passed to JFK, the average life expectancy was 74. As Obama becomes president, it is 78. Today, there are 16 million Americans in their 70s, 9 million in their 80s.
We are not just living longer, but also healthier. Age itself is undergoing a vast transition like those magazine covers that boast: 60 is the new 50 or even the new 40. At 55 and 65, many are thinking more about renewing than retiring.
There are, to be sure, still fault lines along the old generational borders. Aging baby boomers are blamed if they stay at work, blocking access to the next rung up the ladder. Boomers are also blamed if they retire, devouring the incomes of their children, who are paying for Medicare and Social Security.
But it seems to me that one of the great challenges of our time is not going to be passing or wresting torches. It will be easing these generational struggles. We will need older Americans -- is Joe Biden their mentor? -- who can elevate and work for younger leaders without feeling dissed or threatened. We'll need younger people to accept elders as their experienced peers. We'll need an economy and psychology that accommodate the new longevity.
As for the Joshua generation? Have we forgotten that Moses lived to be 120?
Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is Goodman@wctrib.com.