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Commentary: We owe oldest Americans an apology

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: Oldest Americans don't have time for markets to turn around
  • He says they survived Great Depression and sacrificed in World War II
  • Greene: They should be enjoying calm retirement but can't due to crisis
  • It's shameful that they suffer due to foolish Wall St. decisions, he says
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose current book is "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

Bob Greene says oldest Americans don't deserve the anxiety they feel about the economy.

Bob Greene says oldest Americans don't deserve the anxiety they feel about the economy.

(CNN) -- As the country frets about extricating itself from the financial mess, there is one group of Americans to whom the rest of us owe the most sincere words of apology.

That group consists of the oldest of our fellow citizens -- the men and women who went through the Great Depression when they were young, who fought and endured World War II when they were just a little older, and who had hoped for a sense of peace and tranquility in their final years on this earth.

They don't deserve what they are going through. You hear it again and again from money experts: Take the long view of the economy. If you don't need cash from your stock market accounts in the next five to 10 years, leave it in there. Time will heal our current woes -- the economy, even when it's in tatters, runs in cycles. Just wait it out and be patient. Especially young people -- fiscal stability will arrive again in your lifetime. You'll see.

Nice words. Yet they leave out that one group of people -- the people who have a right to be terrified when they are told the economy will only be brutal in the short term. They leave out the people to whom the short term is all they have: our parents. Our grandparents. The men and women who never should have had to worry about their personal security again.

It's never wise to generalize, yet it is safe to say that, as a group, the men and women who endured the Depression and World War II played it straight when it came to putting their trust in financial institutions. They didn't try to game the system; they didn't believe in esoteric money schemes. As a group, they were cautious, because the two defining national events of their lives taught them that you can never really count on anything. They watched their own parents suffer during the Depression, they went overseas for years on end when our nation asked them to save the world, and when they came home, to the prosperity of the Eisenhower years, they crossed their fingers and hoped the good times were not an illusion.

The mistakes and tricks and reckless gambles of the supposedly sophisticated masters of Wall Street have wounded these men and women, many of whom, before the last year, had never even heard the names of the men who ran the biggest investment banks and brokerage firms. Which is why what those oldest Americans are going through is so unfair. Once more, in a lifetime that has been filled with sacrifices, they are having to pay the terrible price for decisions in which they had no say.

For a while, after Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation" focused belated attention on the quietly heroic lives of our parents and grandparents, it finally seemed that the oldest Americans were being allowed to take a victory lap. One of the points Brokaw made was that, for all the pain those men and women lived through, they seldom complained. They just soldiered on.

That appeared to be the elegiac theme of their final chapter: a warm acknowledgment by us, to whom they gave a better world, that we understood and honored their steadfastness -- that we appreciated and were moved by the uncomplaining way they had made it through their hardest years.

We didn't realize that they would be asked to do it again, in 2009 -- we didn't realize that our parents and grandparents, the vestiges of their retirement income suddenly diminished and threatened, would be asked once more to stoically accept hardships they had done nothing to bring upon themselves.

Think of the disdain they must feel for the Wall Street titans who have hurt them. When they hear about a brokerage executive who spends $1,400 on a wastebasket, their first thought undoubtedly is not that the man has taken advantage of his shareholders, or of the federal government. Their first thought -- remember, these men and women were children of the Depression -- is that the man must be a fool, a complete and utter sucker, to pay someone $1,400 for such an item. If you grew up having nothing, your contempt for such an idiotic expenditure is just about absolute. And you wonder about a society in which a person who would spend money that way is expected to prudently handle the money of others.

All that the oldest Americans asked for, in their final years, is a sense of safety, of stability. Twice in the nation's history, they knew what it was like to go to sleep night after night with their stomachs knotted in fear. What we as a country owed them was nights, at the end, when they never again had to feel that dread in the darkness.

Now they are feeling it, and there is nothing that we -- their sons and daughters, their grandsons and granddaughters -- can do to convince them that their fear in the night is groundless. What they are being forced to go through now is -- in the most elemental sense of this word -- a shame. I hope they know how sorry we are.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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