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What the Stones, Bond and Simpson-Bowles Teach Us About Aging

12/07/2012 06:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 06, 2013

Poor pop culture... the favorite punching bag of the opinionated classes and political intelligentsia. But as wonks, geeks and Hill rats wax un-poetically and swap jabs over how to "save" Social Security and Medicare as we approach the so-called "fiscal cliff," it seems that the industry of suntans and Botox is on the real front-lines of saving national entitlement programs.

As the cut, cut, cut vs. tax, tax, tax dialogue drones on from Washington to Brussels, the Rolling Stones kicked off their 50th anniversary tour. The band -- millionaires a million times over -- aren't hitting the road for the extra quid. Sir Michael Philip "Mick" Jagger (69), Keith Richards (68), Charlie Watts (71) and Ronnie Wood (65) are reminding the world -- one sold-out stadium after another -- exactly what they've been telling us all for so long: a rolling stone gathers no moss.

But the Rolling Stones, make no mistake, are a wild and rare exception. Even Elton John (65) has cut back to weekly shows at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and Willie Nelson (79) kept his latest tour to America's Lower 48.

Perhaps what's most interesting about the progressive, never-say-retire trend in Western pop culture is that it's not just happening by age-defying musicians. Equally, the Hollywood movie factory is churning out movie after movie that features a keep-on-trucking aging process -- giving new figurative meaning to "the silver screen." This summer, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and now the crème-de-la-crème of all cinematic franchises -- the ineluctable James Bond -- has gotten in on the action of eschewing retirement.

In Skyfall, a mellowed out (or was he drunk?) Bond sits on the beach somewhere tropical, sipping cocktails that may very well be stirred and not shaken. It looks like life is good for the ostensibly ageless but seemingly retired secret agent, until a situation arises that only he can take care of. For a Britain engulfed by a flailing NHS and dramatically aging population, the subtext is clear enough. And for a movie industry located in one of the most fiscally precarious states, Bond's conundrum is far from allegorical.

To be fair, however, it's not just pop culture that's gotten ahead of policy. In what the ageless (and still touring) Bob Dylan might call "a simple twist of fate," the policy wonks themselves have gotten ahead of their own policy. This may sound impossibly circular, but it's demonstrably true.

In the U.S., Erskine Bowles (67) and Alan Simpson (81) are "the latest odd couple of politics." According to the New York Times, the aged duo have "perfected a sort of Off Broadway show" that has become metonymic for a national fiscal fix. One part politics, one part side-show, Bowles and Simpson are making the talk-show circuit with renewed vigor.

What's at the heart of the Simpson-Bowles drumbeat is an argument about entitlement reform. But nowhere in their agenda do we hear anything about healthy, active and productive aging. And that's astounding. Both of the men are well past the retirement age they're confirming; both are on national publicity tours; and both are showing just how vital and entrepreneurial older adults can be. Both are showing us the way society will have to function in the 21st century when the proportion of old to young continues to profoundly alter its make-up.

Truly, it's an odd state of affairs, hovering somewhere between dramatic irony and the absurd. The most important variable in the U.S.'s fiscal solution -- and equally in Europe and the U.K. -- is a Rolling Stones-cum-James Bond model of aging. We've been idolizing these Brits for years. Why would we stop now? And why haven't Simpson and Bowles looked into the mirror to recognize that the only way to avoid this "cliff" is to create paths for active, productive aging? Even if we avoid the fiscal cliff this time, there's another waiting just around the corner. When you run in circles, you never get anywhere.

With 78 million boomers passing into retirement age in the U.S. and a quarter-billion in Europe, it's time for policymakers to catch up with the legions of pop culture. As long as we continue to award entitlement to everyone who passes an arbitrary age -- regardless of the life they've got left in the tank -- we are bankrupting the only system that can provide support to those who really need it.

To "save" the safety nets -- which is absolutely something we must do -- we need to re-think who qualifies. This ought be as much concern to 20-year-olds as it is to 80-year-olds. We can't cut or increases taxes enough to make the nets big enough to get us all. If Mick Jagger still has time on his side, why does he also get a pension?