'Old' isn't what it used to be

Society needs to rethink its ideas about aging to match the priorities of a new generation of the 'older middle aged'

August 06, 2012|By Andrew L. Yarrow and Kevin J. Sullivan

The way politicians talk, one would think that the only issues that matter to Americans over 55 or 60 are Social Security and Medicare. Of course, the future of these programs is enormously important to the well-being of older citizens (and everyone else who one day will be old), and their runaway costs threaten the nation's long-term budgetary health. But most of the 60 million Americans between the ages of 55 and 75 have other things on their minds than what will happen to these two huge entitlement programs.

They are thinking about work and retirement in new ways. They face the challenges of being a "sandwich generation" between very old parents and young adult children who still need their support. While many are well-to-do, many have no savings and no idea of how they will be supported if they live to be very old. Others confront loneliness, as an unprecedented 30 percent of this population is single, divorced, or widowed. Housing is a big concern, since age-segregated retirement communities have become less appealing and people want to "age in place" or move closer to their children. As the frontiers of old age have been pushed back by medicine and culture, most Americans in their 60s are in good health, go to great lengths to be youthful, and would be insulted to be called "elderly." One poll found that people in this age bracket say that old age begins at 79.

Fifty-five to sixty-nine year-olds are the fastest growing age group in the U.S. population. Although this demographic now includes older Baby Boomers, the issues are not just about a single cohort but, more importantly, about a new stage of life that is not what is conventionally thought of as either "middle age" or "old age." They are 20 percent of the U.S. population and — politicians take note — nearly 30 percent of voters. Rather than falling into the same old debates about Social Security and Medicare, our leaders might better connect with this huge segment of the electorate if they spoke to their real issues.

Part of the problem is that we live in a cultural time warp about what it means to be "old." A few generations ago, turning 65 (or even 60) meant the advent of old age. This is still how programs such as Social Security and Medicare define it. Movie theaters, museums, and many other institutions still consider "senior citizens" to be anyone over 65. Many publications refer to anyone past this age as "elderly."

This is absurd. Just looking at today's 65-year-olds and at photos of 65-year-olds in the 1940s or 1950s makes the point. At a most basic level, we need to redefine aging and what it means to be in "later middle age." Our ideas about aging need to catch up with realities.

Most importantly, we need to rethink work and retirement. Forty percent of Americans age 55 and older were in the labor force in 2010, and these numbers are growing. Yet, many who want to work face age discrimination and are either unemployed or, more likely, have dropped out of the workforce. Up to 95 percent of people over 50 say that "age bias is a fact of life," according to an AARP survey. At the same time, 81 percent of Boomers expect to keep working past 65, and 56 percent would like to embark on new careers, according to the Merrill Lynch New Retirement Survey. Although many older Americans must work to make ends meet because they have little in the way of savings or pensions, many others do not want to suddenly end their working lives at 65. In short, we have a serious mismatch between the desire or need to work longer and an unfriendly job market for older workers.

Twentieth-century alternatives — a continuation of midlife work or a completely nonworking retirement by the golf course — no longer appeal to many later middle aged Americans. They seek more flexibility in work schedules. Many want a hybrid of retirement and part-time work, or phased retirement. Many also want to pursue new types of work, often in ways that give back to society. Some seek education. Meeting these needs and desires will not only benefit millions but also benefit our economy and society. If older Americans are able to continue to work in ways that meet their needs and those of employers, it will raise GDP and growth, reduce their need for Social Security and other public resources, and increase tax revenues.

We do ourselves no favors to cling to old ideas about what is old.

Andrew L. Yarrow, a senior fellow at the Institute for American Values, is the author of "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century" and is working on a book on the history of the early 20th century thrift movement. His email is andrewyarrowcolumns@gmail. Kevin J. Sullivan is a policy expert on education and aging.

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