AARP Wakes Up to Reality
In a dramatic announcement on June 17, 2011, AARP, the giant advocacy organization, declared that they would be willing to consider reduced benefits for future retirees. Although AARP waffled upon confronting the explosive media response, by then pundits were all over what seemed like a major reversal of AARP's long-standing policy of holding firm on entitlements, regardless of social or political realities.
Visionaries like gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, founder of Age Wave, warned decades ago about "train wrecks" ahead when he foresaw the implications of a society demographically dominated by the third age (age 60-plus adults). Now those warnings have turned prophetic as we witness daily assaults on senior programs from a mean-spirited right wing determined to slash if not destroy Social Security, Medicare, and end of life care. Sadly, weak-kneed Democrats are caving to this agenda.
What is being ignored in all the rhetoric is that today's aging society demands radical restructuring to create a viable society for all age groups. Unfortunately, advocacy organizations are locked into mid-twentieth century economics and social ideologies. To insist that entitlements remain untouched is a self-destructive war cry that will fall on deaf ears unless we build up the sources of revenues to support the burgeoning elderly population. This means bringing manufacturing back to America, focusing on job creation, promoting an immigration policy that ensures an adequate workforce, improving the health of the nation's workers, reducing school dropout rates to fortify a 21st century ready workforce, providing low cost college education and reducing or forgiving student loans. These measures speak to the sweeping changes that have transformed the United States since the mid-twentieth century:
• A demographic shift in which older adults are now the largest group -- greater than infants, small children, adolescents, young adults and middle aged adults.
• Forty plus workers per retiree when Social security was enacted is now down to about three and heading to less than two.
• A global economy that disenfranchised American workers and decimated the middle class.
• Massive exporting of jobs overseas.
• The decline of labor unions.
• The increasing disappearance of pensions.
• A technological revolution that changed the work world -- skills that previously lasted a worker's lifetime now have a shelf life of 5-10 years at most.
• High unemployment with no light at the end of the tunnel -- and perhaps no tunnel to even look through.
All these factors contribute to the growing imbalance in the ratio of workers to retirees that is fueling the call for drastically revising entitlements. But a new agenda for a society of all ages can fortify the foundation of entitlements.
Young people are key to salvaging senior entitlements
We need every young person to be fully educated for the demanding technological work world of the 21st century. But today's high school dropout rate of 25 percent or more means that we will be expanding the ranks of low wage earners, the unemployed and the unemployable. Every child or young adult who falls by the wayside chips away at senior entitlements.
The 44 percent dropouts from college (much related to the outrageous cost of higher education) with reduced labor market skills will also be a drag on senior entitlements. And the astonishing $937 billion dollars in outstanding student loans -- with an additional $100 billion added each year -- will translate into reduced discretionary spending later, which will hurt businesses, resulting in lower tax revenues and another blow to entitlements.
Health and entitlements
A healthy workforce is vital to providing revenues for entitlements. Currently we are in the grips of numerous epidemics among children, young and middle-aged adults: obesity, diabetes, asthma, coronary disease, osteoporosis and cancer. Disease is not only costly it lowers workforce productivity -- as much as a $63 billion loss in productivity each year. Chronic disease will also shorten the years of work force participation. Healthcare and prevention for all should be high up among the issues for senior advocacy.
Immigration will strengthen senior entitlements
Throughout the industrialized world fertility rates are falling dramatically. Countries like Italy, Germany and Japan will suffer significant population losses, thus reducing the number of workers to maintain vigorous economies that can support growing elderly populations. The U.S. fertility rate is in better shape and near replacement levels (each couple must replace themselves or the population will decline) for one reason: immigration. The high birth rate among immigrants and first generation families is comparable to the height of our baby boom era. But immigration is under attack. Advocacy groups for the elderly must take on the promotion of a sound immigration policy that will help provide future workers to sustain senior entitlements.
Increasing our manufacturing base and restoring jobs for workers at all levels of education and ability are no brainers if we are serious about bolstering the underpinnings of entitlements. These are issues for senior advocacy that will put teeth into demands for maintaining current levels of entitlements.
What can seniors contribute?
Their role in society will have to change. They too will have to contribute to productivity in some fashion. Why?
A society dominated by the third age is an immense game changer. Older adults' behavior and preferences are sharply different from those of younger people, on economic, social and political issues -- from fashion and relationships to religion and civic life (e.g. voting in greater percentages than all other age groups), and much more.
This vast shift of generational domination is comparable to the upheavals of other great game changers like the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution -- with one glaring difference. Those revolutions added to productivity. They created new industries, new jobs, expanded opportunities, and brought higher standards of living to greater numbers of people. In contrast, the longevity revolution, with its fifty percent increase in life expectancy over the last hundred years has focused primarily on how to stem the economic hemorrhaging caused by the growing imbalance of productive workers to retirees.
A sweeping societal revolution cannot be successful if it rests on payouts to the largest and still growing segment of society. How then can seniors add to productivity?
Working longer is not the answer
That's the facile solution of economists and demographers who look at cold facts and conclude that older people will just have to work longer -- perhaps till they drop. Middle-aged workers may agree as they look at their dismal savings, rising debts, shrinking 401Ks and falling values of their homes.
But ask people over age 65 about work (that's when work really counts toward buttressing the economics of the retirements years) you you get less enthusiastic responses. And the enthusiasm fades even more among 70-75 year olds. Moreover, many people over 65 can't continue to work. They are increasingly replaced by younger workers, or they don't have the skills needed for the technological workplace, or they have disabilities or health issues. And for the unemployed, even after age fifty, finding a job is treading a rough if not barren road.
If not traditional work then what?
One place to start indirectly adding to productivity is helping young people become productive workers. Remember, children are key to sustaining senior entitlements. Eventually, it's their tax revenues that will fund programs for the elderly.
Seniors embody a vast untapped reservoir of skills and talents
Their know-how can rescue our dismally failing education system. They can restore school programs that have been savaged by budget cuts throughout the United States. Most affected are music and art programs -- the very ones that often provide the motivation for kids to stay in school. Retirees can offer mentoring, tutoring, social support and other safety nets for students at risk.
To harness seniors' energy we need a new model that makes volunteerism an obligation. Let's reaffirm John F. Kennedy's rousing call half a century ago: "Ask not what you country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Imagine what 77 million boomers could accomplish by volunteering upon retirement.
The only thing that stands in the way is a flaw in the current structure of volunteerism, Relatively few retirees can comfortably navigate the complex volunteer-agency bureaucracies, tracking down information, arranging for interviews, and the like. Many give up after a few frustrating email exchanges or phone calls. So how can we expand volunteer participation?
What's needed are neighborhood centers, storefronts or other close-by locations where retirees can be helped to make appropriate volunteerism matches and then be shepherded through the process -- with follow-up. These centers can become hubs where volunteers can fill many social and economic "potholes" on America's road to prosperity.
This "Senior Productivity Corps" would also change forever the image of seniors from takers to makers. Once we apply the ingenuity for which Americans are justly famous, I'm sure we can find other ways that older Americans can contribute directly or indirectly to productivity so that the longevity revolution delivers extended years of joyful living rather than the dreary "gray dawn" that doomsayers have forecast.