Right on cue for the January 2011 first of the baby boomers turning 65, the New York Times on the last day of 2010 ran an op-ed by author Susan Jacoby, “Real Life Among the Old Old.” And also right on cue, the focus of this milestone is on getting old, or more often, being old, as she asks, “Are baby boomers prepared for the depredations of aging?” But Ms. Jacoby misses the essential insight of the “aging thing,” which is less about getting old and more about the most massive social transformation in a century.
It’s not only the baby boomer demographic bulge that is noteworthy. It’s even more the longevity which will keep baby boomers alive another twenty years, and counting, and which has consequences for how future generations live in the 21st century. At the beginning of the 20th century, the average life span was 47 due to wars, communicable diseases, poor hygiene, and other environmental factors. Now a decade into the 21st, it’s over 80, and not just in America.
While Ms. Jacoby may have been narrow in her focus, USA Today and CBS News come a bit closer to the more profound impact aging is having on our social contract – the relationship between public policy and the citizens who government serves. In their January baby boomer milestone partnership series piece, “Senior Moment—Boomers Turn 65,” they asked 65-year-old hotel icon Ian Schrager, “When do you plan to stop working?” To which Schrager answered, “No time soon.” He goes on to quote from the Dutch American abstract artist, Willam de Kooning: “I don’t live to paint, I paint to live.” Rather than focusing on old, they’re focusing on healthy and active aging. Better than depredations.
But for my money, it’s the FT’s “Coming of Age column” that more profoundly hits the mark. James Mackintosh uses the baby boomer milestone to point out the affect more broadly: “With the first of the baby boomers turning 65 next year, every investor should be paying attention. It is not enough to think about how companies can sell products to the elderly. The shift in population from workers to retirees – or from savers to spenders – will affect the value of assets in ways that could be far more important.”
Mackintosh, who himself is only 40 and already thinking about aging, is onto something here: When you combine the baby boomer bulge with the longevity impact, the most serious questions are less about age, and more about how this shifting demographic will become an organizing framework for market activity and public policy in the 21st century. Today’s thirty somethings, their children, and their children will be living differently if they begin to consider a life course of aging into their nineties and beyond. As reported by The Stanford Center on Longevity, our aging population – a global phenomenon shifting from today’s 7 percent worldwide to over 16 percent by mid century – will bring about a deep set of social and culture changes. For America and our richer Asian and European friends, the change is even more dramatic, ranging from our own 21 percent by mid century to Japan, Italy and Germany all exceeding one third over 65.
So, as we go back to work this week, and as America welcomes our new political leadership to the statehouses and to Washington, D.C., perhaps the clever media interest in baby boomers will begin to get transferred to a serious policy debate for its impact on taxes, social welfare programs, pensions and healthcare.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.
Click here to visit the Age and Reason home page.