Aging in America – and beyond

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

It’s not your imagination.

There is, in fact, a lot of gray hair around you.

The U.S. Census estimates that in 2034, for the first time, there will be more Americans 65 years or older than children 18 or younger. That means that one in five citizens will be at, or beyond, retirement age.

And it’s not just us.

World-wide will soon see more than a billion of us over age 65.

Who ages?

The obvious answer is that we all age.

But in a world such as ours, aging is far more than a fate or eventuality that faces all of us – if we are lucky.

But in an interconnected, global economy and society, it gets way, way more complicated.

What happens when multimillions of us move into the later stages of life?

And this generation has more wealth and influence than any generation has ever held – and probably ever will.

The bottom line is that everything changes

The aging population will change everything from urban design, transport, and consumption to relations and travel between countries.

Innovation and adaptation related to age will re-shape how we consider education, health equality, loneliness, isolation, work and income.

Technology moves quickly, but attitudes and laws don’t

There was a time, all of human history in fact, until recently, when elders were respected and valued for their accumulated wisdom and sets of skills.

A master of their craft, was, by definition, one who had worked on their skill for years, if not decades.

We in North America and Europe have been in a youth obsessed culture for generations.

What happens after wide scale denial and evasions (like surgery and Botox) when we, by the millions, acknowledge our aging – and, even worse, our mortality?

Among other things, retirement looks nothing like it did just a few years ago. Welfare and pension systems, for example, were developed when nations and economies had a stable or expanding younger population.

In many nations, from Japan to the USA to most of Europe, that is no longer the case.

Some African countries are still relatively young.

But even there, over the next 40 to 50 years, populations will start to decline.

What will old people do?

Besides there being more of us, and having more wealth, many of us are living much longer.

To put it mildly, this is not your father’s (or grandfather’s) retirement generation.

The bulk of this generation will work longer, spend more, care more and volunteer more.

This will not be a generation retreating to retirement facilities.

For decades, a prevailing philosophy was that older people prevented younger ones from getting jobs.

A short tour of any business district will reveal just the opposite – we have ever present, and massive, skill and labor shortages – especially in areas where we need them most – as in health care.

From substitute teaching to fast food places, formerly retired people are taking up much needed positions.

Inactivity and isolation are co-occurring dilemmas as the years pass.

Part time work schedules are a solution – perhaps for all of us.

Work, neighborhoods and travel need to become more accessible and appealing to those of all abilities and ages.

What happened to pensions?

A generation ago, pensions were standard with almost all employment.

For the most part, they have been replaced by employer matching programs – which save the employers money, but leave many workers with far less than they need – especially as many live longer.

Gray New Deal

For lots of reasons, many of will work more (maybe even far more) than we would have imagined.

Some of us will need to.

But many of us will (or do) want to.

Besides income, issues around isolation and community participation are core.

Thanks to the evaporation of pensions, income is ever-more pressing for more of us.

Health – and health care – inequities become ever more visible – and pressing with every passing year.

The bottom line is that more of us, of all ages, need to live better, not longer, and address those inequalities that become ever more visible if not intrusive.

And, no, it’s not your imagination – politicians are above average when it comes to age

On a national level, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is 88. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is also 88, and he’s running for re-election. Nancy Pelosi is 82. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is 71, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 80. President Joe Biden is also rapidly approaching 80.

We’ve seen this before, particularly in the Senate: Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) served in the chamber until he was 100 years old, but never to such a degree. The average age in the Senate is 64 years old — the oldest the Senate chamber’s collective membership has ever been.

On a state level, Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler issued an apology following a report from the Seattle Times detailing allegations over his use of racial slurs, and reaffirming previous claims he had mistreated staff.

In essence, he used his age as an excuse; “I’ve been in public office for more than four decades. During that time, society’s norms have steadily changed —and that’s a good thing. We should evolve and get better… Unfortunately, sometimes my language has not kept up with those changes.”

Maybe there’s some experience and wisdom that benefits the country, but I worry about those who have so little stake in our long-term future – and so little understanding of pressing issues of the present – and who won’t let go of power, or assumptions from half a century ago.

There’s a wisdom to planning one’s departure while there’s still an opportunity to get a proper successor in place.

Part of one’s legacy after all, is how one graciously moves out of the way in recognition that their work, their best work, has been done.

Leaving on a high note is the hallmark of a master performer.

Our political landscape, our entertainment, our schools and much more are changing and will never be the same.

Those who know when the show is over and when they have played their best, do themselves, and all of us, a favor.