Aging and the Horse Raceby Jon Schwartz May 27, 2016
In January, I challenged myself to not watch sports for this entire year. Watching sports, of any kind, was something I really enjoyed, so this decision did not come lightly. But I wanted to be more thoughtful about my consumption, more conscious about how I spend my time.
The first couple weeks were great – I listened to NPR, caught up on a few books and even ordered a subscription to The New Yorker. A couple weeks later, it became painful to keep my eyes and ears away from sports. The Super Bowl was coming, and the rumblings started early. I had to distract myself with something – something really fascinating.
Lucky for me, I picked an election year to give up sports. I have been utterly engrossed in this election since the Iowa Caucuses. For the sake of this column, I will set aside my personal feelings of embarrassment at the state of politics in order to focus on one of the many things that’s missing from the conversation – aging. I haven’t heard much from either side about new or improved policies to address our aging population.
We know that 42 percent of the federal budget is currently spent on Medicare and Social Security. These two programs are projected to rise to 50 percent of the budget by 2030. We should demand to hear candidates’ plans to solve some of the obstacles an aging population will have. Here are the top five critical questions that I feel our candidates should have answers for, as they continue to have the attention of the voting public:
Question 1: What is the new “old” age? Our economy is based off 19th century longevity numbers. When Social Security began, the average American could expect to live 62 years. In 1937 there were 42 working-aged people paying into social security. Today, average life expectancy is about 79 and due to declining fertility rates, we have fewer than three working aged people paying for each retiree. In today’s world, is 65 or even 67 still the right marker of “old” age?
Question 2: What bold measures will you take to eliminate diseases of aging? With modern medical advances and public health infrastructure, we’ve managed to prolong life. At the same time, we have very little to extend the health span of individuals. Pandemics of heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s and diabetes are rampant. In addition to being quite costly, our healthcare system is incompetent at preventing and treating the complex and intertwined conditions of later life.
Question 3: As President, how will you motivate Americans to save enough to afford their longer lives? According to the Government Accounting Office, nearly half of upcoming retirees have no retirement savings. Equally unsettling, half our recent retiree’s have no pension beyond Social Security. We could be heading to a future in which tens of millions of impoverished aging boomers will place crushing burdens on the U.S. economy and on the generations forced to support them.
Question 4: Do you believe ageism exists in America? If so, what will you do to end this prejudice? Today, as older age become more commonplace, our society has become youth obsessed, uncomfortable both with older adults and their own aging process. Many institutions from urban planning, to education, technology, employment hiring practices, housing, and popular media are youth-centric and ageist.
Question 5: What is the purpose of older age? Perhaps my favorite question of them all! I get the chance to speak to a multitude of groups of about this very question. Ultimately, the problem may not be our growing legions of older adults but our absence of imagination, creativity and leadership regarding what to do with all of this maturity and longevity.
Even with all this political excitement, the tempation of sports continues to linger. This month, we’re in the midst of NBA finals, with, from what I hear, a potential for a repeat of last year’s incredbile match-up between Cleveland’s Lebron James and Golden State’s Stephen Curry. There will be dunks, three-pointers and tons of enthusiasm coming from both directions. But I will continue to keep my promise to myself, and substitute with the almost equally intense match-up between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. I remain hopeful that we will hear more civility, but what I’m really looking for is the two candidates to discuss their plans for our aging society. I hope you expect that as well. Α