Predicting an older, and wiser, America

Senior Life

August 01, 1999|By Mary Moorhead | Mary Moorhead,Knight Ridder/Tribune

On a typical cool spring day near San Francisco recently, I chatted with Theodore Roszak, professor of history and author of numerous publications, including "The Making of a Counter Culture." As I relaxed in his comfortable home office, we turned our attention to his recent book, "America the Wise: The Longevity Revolution and the True Wealth of Nations" (Houghton Mifflin Co.; $25), and his thoughts on the aging of our population.

I found myself mesmerized by his logical, yet optimistic, vision of the changes that will occur during the next few decades as folks older than 60 gradually make up one quarter of our population. Roszak predicts no less than a "longevity revolution."

Dispelling notions of an economic crisis caused by hordes of dependent seniors draining our financial resources, Roszak foresees the predominance of seniors as the "true wealth of nations." He describes these changes as the inevitable, positive final stage of the industrial revolution. Healthy and prospering due to the technological advances of medicine, "increasing numbers of us will be living longer than our parents or grandparents," he says.

Thus, we have gained the greatest gift of all: a long life. It is up to seniors, especially the large baby boom generation soon to be the "senior boom" generation, to use this time wisely.

Roszak hopes that seniors now and seniors to come will use the years when it is no longer necessary to worry about raising children or earning more money to "join with others in building a compassionate society where people can think deep thoughts, create beauty, study nature, teach the young, worship what they hold sacred and care for one another."

The author predicts that as baby boomers age, their power, through sheer numbers and activist tendencies, will bring about changes in politics, art, work, love, family, education, media and the workplace. Roszak envisions seniors as leaders, mentors, workers and volunteers who profoundly shape the values that undergird our daily lives.

Yet, he's also aware that there's a lot of talk about the looming financial problem posed by so many dependent seniors. Roszak feels the media and politicians have overemphasized and misunderstood this issue. He defends Social Security and offers alternative viewpoints.

For example, the projection of too few workers to support the Social Security payments of too many elders is misleading and not the real problem, he says.

Citing a concept called "the dependency load," he explains that during the 1950s, the traditional nuclear family of, say, six was supported by one worker with one fat paycheck. It is not the number of folks working to support dependents that matters so much as the productivity level of the workers.

"We are a rich country, and we have the financial resources to support our frail elders," he says. "It is not about the money."

The future is about the cultural-values change that will occur as large numbers of baby boomers encounter medical crises that bring them close to death and struggle with the difficult elder-care problems of their parents. Encountering and contemplating these life events, they will re-evaluate their values, their elders and caregiving. They will lead the change toward a compassionate society where consumer values will finally take a back seat, he predicts.

Mary B. Moorhead is a licensed family therapist and elder-care specialist. Write to her at 1664 Solano Ave., Berkeley, Calif. 94707, or e-mail her at

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