Riding Into the Sunset
The Geezer Threat
In 1900 Americans on average lived for only 49 years and most working people died still on the job. For those who lived long enough, the average "retirement" age was 85. By 1935, when Social Security was enacted, life expectancy had risen to 61 years. Now it is 77 years--nearly a generation more--and still rising. Children born today have a fifty-fifty chance of living to 100. This inheritance from the last century--the great gift of longer life--surely represents one of the country's most meaningful accomplishments.
Yet the achievement has been transformed into a monumental problem by contemporary politics and narrow-minded accounting. "The nation faces a severe economic threat from the aging of its population combined with escalating health costs," a Washington Post editorial warned. Others put it more harshly. "Greedy geezers" are robbing from the young, bankrupting the government. Painful solutions must be taken to avoid financial ruin. Or so we are told.
A much happier conviction is expressed by Robert Fogel, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago and a septuagenarian himself. America, he reminds us, is a very wealthy nation. The expanding longevity is not a financial burden but an enormous and underdeveloped asset. If US per capita income continues to grow at a rate of 1.5 percent a year, the country will have plenty of money to finance comfortable retirements and high-quality healthcare for all citizens, including those at the bottom of the wage ladder. When politicians talk about raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 in order to "save" the system, they are headed backward and against the tide of human aspirations. The average retirement age, Fogel observes, has been falling in recent decades by personal choice and is now around 63. Given proper financing arrangements, he expects the retirement age will eventually fall to as low as 55--allowing everyone to enjoy more leisure years and to explore the many dimensions of "spiritual development" or "self-realization," as John Dewey called it.
"What then is the virtue of increasing spending on retirement and health rather than goods?" Fogel asked in his latest book, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (2000). "It is the virtue of providing consumers in rich countries with what they want most." What people want is time--more time to enjoy life and learning, to focus on the virtuous aspects of one's nature, to pursue social projects free of economic necessity, to engage their curiosity and self-knowledge or their political values. The great inequity in modern life, as Fogel provocatively puts it, is the "maldistribution of spiritual resources," that is, the economic insecurity that prevents people from exploring life's larger questions. Everyone could attain a fair share of liberating security, he asserts, if government undertook strategic interventions in their behalf.
Fogel's perspective is generally ignored by other economists, but sociologists and psychologists recognize his point in the changing behavior of retirees. The elderly are redefining leisure, finding "fun" in myriad activities that lend deeper meaning to their lives. An informal shadow university has grown up around the nation in which older people are both the students and the teachers. They do "volunteer vacationing" and "foster grandparenting." They rehab old houses for the needy, serve as self-appointed environmental watchdogs or act as ombudsmen for neglected groups like indigent children or nursing-home patients. They dig into political issues with an informed tenacity that often withers politicians. In civic engagement, they are becoming counselors, critics, caregivers and mentors equipped with special advantages--the time and freedom to act, the knowledge and understanding gained only from the experience of living.
When the "largest generation" reaches retirement a few years from now, the baby boomers will doubtless alter the contours of society again, perhaps more profoundly than in their youth. Theodore Roszak, the historian who chronicled The Making of a Counter Culture thirty-six years ago, thinks boomers taking up caregiving and mentoring roles will inspire another wave of humanistic social values (perhaps expressed more maturely this time around). "More than merely surviving we will find ourselves gifted with the wits, the political savvy and the sheer weight of numbers to become a major force for change," Roszak wrote in America the Wise (1998). "With us, history shifts its rhythm. It draws back from the frenzied pursuit of marketing novelties and technological turnover and assumes the measured pace of humane and sustainable values. We may live to see wisdom become a distinct possibility and compassion the reigning social ethic." The "retired," he predicts, will seek to become reintegrated with the working society and claim a larger role in its affairs. Some elderly may reclaim the ancient role of respected "elders" who keep alive society's deeper truths and remind succeeding generations of their obligations to the nation's longer term. None of these possibilities are likely to unfold, however, if the promise of economic security for retirement is eviscerated in the meantime.