Arbitrary Age Benchmarks Undermine the Safety Net

Arbitrary Age Benchmarks Undermine the Safety Net

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In this New Year, after avoiding the fiscal cliff, we’re left with the untenable, unsustainable and unfathomable debt build-up due in large measure to age-related subsidies built on 20th century notions of work, need and retirement.

Maybe, then, I shouldn’t have been insulted when I discovered the 25-percent discount on my train ticket from Paris to Amboise during the holiday that my wife and I recently took. It was given solely due to my age – 61 – which, by European standards, anyway, is apparently old enough to be considered that much more dependent on the European welfare state, especially evident in Hollande’s France.

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It was that stark reality that also allowed me to connect what I had previously thought to be a peculiar obsession with Gerard Depardieu’s move from the high-tax burden in his native France to the lower Belgian burden barely a walk away; now, he’s apparently finding refuge in Russia.

Vacationing in Europe recently, and not only in France, there was little respite from the Depardieu story – on TV, in newspaper headlines, and often discussed in hotel bars. It’s the small things that become the symbols for larger matters and so it is here. 

The only way the French government, and others around Europe from Greece to Germany, can afford to give me that 25 percent discount merely because of age is if tax rates reach the unbearably high rates that apparently caused Mr. Depardieu to take action.

This is not unconnected to America’s debt and deficit issues, which are clearly about our unwillingness to re-imagine the huge and unending spending spiral on which our own age-dependent entitlement system is based. This was made abundantly clear in the most recent discussion about our Social Security system – and “how it’s worse than you think.”

Let’s hope, as the first month of this New Year barrels along, that these small and large things might be connected for some truly historical political progress that connects economic growth to the most profound demographic shift of our time. Now that we are living into our 90s as a matter of course, it’s time to apply these new realities to a renegotiated social contract between citizens and government.

If dependency and need are no longer automatically connected to age, is it not time to rethink and restructure? That, paradoxically, might be the only way to preserve a set of values that can, in fact, create the policies on which we can find the public funds for those who truly need the support.

Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.