The Washington Post is the latest media outlet to describe population aging as a zero-sum, “kids vs. canes” proposition in which the old profit at the expense of the young (“How the graying of America is stretching local tax dollars,” October 23, 2017). This scenario makes great headlines. But it’s a red herring, and it reduces the new longevity to a problem when it is also a fundamental measure of human progress.
Framing population aging in old vs. young terms:
- Is unethical: We don’t allocate resources by race or by sex. Weighing the needs of the old against the young is equally unacceptable. Period.
- Fails the common sense test: Olders are not “them;” they are “us:” our parents and spouses, our neighbors and friends. If society doesn’t help support a decent old age, who’s going to end up taking care of your grandparents—and you in turn? Everyone is old or future old.
- Is profoundly ageist: The depiction of older Americans as social and economic dead weight is mean-spirited and flat-out wrong. Increasing numbers continue to work and pay taxes well past “retirement age.” In 2015 their unpaid volunteer work was valued at $75 billion. By 2032 the 50-plus age group is projected to drive more than half of US economic activity. Olders do indeed receive a significant amount of government and welfare spending, but isn’t that what the system was designed for—to help those who need it? Resources are not inherently scarce; they are the result of policy decisions in a society that devalues its oldest and youngest citizens. It’s a question of priorities.
- Pits us against each other: Communities that are good to grow old in—with social and health care services, safe public spaces, good public transportation, and smarter zoning—benefit everyone, as do workplaces that offer the accessibility and flextime that older workers require. They’re all-age-friendly.
- Is unhelpful: We are all aging. Instead of arguing over whose needs come first, let’s develop sensible and economical ways to support the multi-generational society that we all hope to live long enough to inhabit. Examples include engaging Meals on Wheels programs to deliver other social services, co-locating senior centers and day care centers, and developing community-based programs that keep olders living at home and socially connected.
Longer lives represent not just a challenge but a remarkable resource and opportunity. To take advantage of this “longevity dividend,” we need to quit the reflexive hand-wringing, challenge the ageist assumptions that underlie it, and think realistically and imaginatively about the kinds of intergenerational contracts an equitable future will require. It’s going to require all hands on deck—and all ages.
Ashton Applewhite, ThisChairRocks.com
Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director, Justice in Aging