As wonks, geeks and Hill rats wax over how to “save” Social Security and Medicare as we approach the so-called fiscal cliff, an unlikely group is inadvertently saving national entitlement programs – and it’s not the AARP.
It’s the Rolling Stones, who have kicked off their 50th anniversary tour. The band, millionaires all, aren’t trying to pay off their Visa bills. Sir Michael Philip “Mick” Jagger (age 69), Keith Richards (68), Charlie Watts (71), and Ronnie Wood (65) are reminding the world, one sold-out venue after another, that working past the traditional retirement age of 60 or 65 is not a punishment, but a joy and a privilege.
For sure, the Stones are a wild and rare exception. Even Elton John (age 65) has cut back to weekly shows at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and Willie Nelson (79) has limited his latest tour to the Lower 48.
But perhaps what’s most interesting about the progressive, never-say-retire trend in Western pop culture is that it’s not restricted to age-defying musicians. The Hollywood is also churning out movies that give new figurative meaning to “the silver screen.” Last summer, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and now the crème-de-la-crème of all cinematic franchises, the ineluctable James Bond, has gotten in on the action of eschewing retirement.
In Skyfall, a mellowed out (or was he drunk?) Bond sits on a tropical beach, sipping cocktails that may very well be stirred and not shaken. It looks like life is good for the ostensibly ageless but seemingly retired secret agent, until a situation arises that only he can handle. For a Britain engulfed by a flailing NHS and dramatically aging population, the subtext is clear enough. And for a movie industry located in one of the most fiscally precarious states, Bond’s conundrum is far from allegorical.
It’s not just pop culture, though, that’s gotten ahead of policy. In what the ageless (and still touring) Bob Dylan might call “a simple twist of fate,” the policy wonks themselves have gotten ahead of their own policy. This may sound impossibly circular, but it’s demonstrably true.
In the U.S., Erskine Bowles (67) and Alan Simpson (81) are “the latest odd couple of politics.” The aging duo have “perfected a sort of Off Broadway show” that has become metonymic for a national fiscal fix, according to The New York Times. One part politics, one part side-show, Bowles and Simpson appear on the talk-show circuit almost as often as evergreen blowhards on the nightly fare.
At the heart of the Simpson-Bowles drumbeat is an argument about entitlement reform. But nowhere in their agenda do we hear anything about healthy, active and productive aging. Both men are well past the retirement age they’re struggling to address; both are showing just how vital and entrepreneurial older adults can be. Both are showing us the way society will have to function in the 21st century when the proportion of old to young continues to profoundly alter our demographic make-up.
The most important variable in the U.S.’s fiscal solution (and equally in Europe and the U.K.) is a Rolling Stones-cum-James Bond model of aging. We’ve been idolizing these Brits for years. Why would we stop now? And why haven’t Simpson and Bowles looked into the mirror to recognize that the only way to avoid this “cliff” is to create paths for active, productive aging? Even if we avoid the fiscal cliff this time, there’s another waiting just around the corner. With 78 million baby boomers passing into retirement age in the U.S. and a quarter-billion in Europe, it’s time for policymakers to catch up with the legions of pop culture. As long as we continue to award entitlements to everyone who passes an arbitrary age, regardless of the life they’ve got left, or how active they can or want to be, we are bankrupting the only system that can provide support to those who really need it.
With 20 to 35 percent of the population over so-called “retirement age” throughout the West (and in many places in Asia), those programs of the last century must be renovated to fit new 21st century demographics. To “save” the safety nets -- something we must do, absolutely -- we need to re-think who qualifies.
This ought to be as much concern to 20-year-olds as it is to 80- year-olds. We can’t cut or increases taxes enough to make the nets big enough to get us all. If Mick Jagger still has time on his side, why does he also get a pension?
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.