Yes. And it’s a good thing, because people the same age can function very differently, and functionality should trump chronology. But that makes it harder to wield the blunt instrument of public policy fairly, and the shifting landscape of retirement makes doesn’t help. Some people are cutting cut back on their hours, some retire and then return to the workforce, and some just keep working—some by choice and others out of necessity—and their stories are all over the media this week.
It’s clear that to afford longer lives, people are going to have to work longer and save more. It’s also clear that the landscape is bleak for many now approaching what used to be retirement age. In a special Retirement section this week, the New York Times reported that one-third of retirees in the United States rely solely on Social Security. (Benefits average just over $15,000 a year for an individual and $30,000 for a couple—not exactly mad money.) “I think many people do more work to plan a trip than they do to plan their retirements,” said Stan Hinden, author of How to Retire Happy, on an NPR story called “When Retirement Goes Wrong.” His plans unraveled when his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“Britain ‘woefully’ under-prepared for rising number of elderly people” announced a headline in the Guardian a day later, with a Lords Select Committee recommending raising the retirement age and reviewing pensioner benefits. (Yes, many British workers still have pensions.) Also, appropriately, supporting people who want to work longer as well as the people who care for the ones who can’t. And making it easier for the many olders who want to continue to contribute on a flex-time or volunteer basis. All necessary.
It was a companion piece in the Guardian that same day that interested me the most, though, because it addressed the underlying need to shift attitudes about aging. Nowhere to go but up, given the title of the piece, sigh: “Old age should not be approached with horror.” “A youth-obsessed society that makes a mint from mining the alleged horrors of growing older – all sag and no sagacity – has locked us into a set of taboos that means millions of us are moving from middle age into possibly decades of allegedly unproductive, dependent, parked-up old age without sufficient armament or attitude of mind to challenge prevailing prejudices,” writes Yvonne Roberts. Roberts salutes the Lord’s Committee’s report, Ready for Aging as “the first coherent attempt to provide a passport for older life that treats those over 60 as active citizens, not liabilities.” The report includes an Attitudes to Aging section that acknowledges that pegging policy to chronological age no longer makes sense (if it ever did), and that attitudes need to shift along with practices and policies. Maybe we can upgrade from “horror” to “antipathy” by 2015!
As I learned when researching the history of divorce for Cutting Loose, laws don’t provoke social change: they reflect it. Economics is a merciless catalyst. Take this summary from an opinion piece about official definitions of poverty published in the New York Times the same day as the Guardian pieces: “In other words, both the beginning and the end of life are becoming increasingly subject to market decisions, cost-benefit analyses, and bottom line considerations that had not been so glaringly explicit in the past.” The interests of the very young and very old, our least empowered citizens, are inextricably linked. The global recession makes it especially important to keep them firmly in mind.