POST 50
04/07/2016 07:52 am ET

Senior Discounts Aren't Necessary And Actually Can Do Harm

The accomplishment of retaining a pulse should not be grounds alone for discounts.
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Many years ago, I took my two 80-something-year-old aunts to lunch at a chain restaurant near the retirement village where they both lived. The prices were inexpensive and the place was packed with senior citizens, every one of them asking for their 10 percent senior discount -- about 75 cents for lunch.

"We deserve it, we're seniors," one of my aunts explained to me. Not wanting to ruin our visit, I bit my tongue. 

Even though I now qualify for them senior discounts, I don't ask for them. I don't see the justification for giving a group of people a discount just because they're still breathing.

Instead of age-based discounts, Why not give a break to people who don't litter or who pick up after their pets? Why not give a discount to people who quit smoking? I'd love to see discounts given to people who behave civilly, don't fight over parking spots or pass on blind curves. Let's reward patience and kindness and give discounts to people who don't save seats at the school talent show or who hold elevator doors instead of letting them slam shut on people. How about a discount for those who use their indoor voice when outside in nature? Or who don't bring their cell phones to restaurants? Or who volunteer in the community?

I can think of a million things that are more deserving of rewards than simply having a lot of birthdays. Senior discounts are a marketing tool that merchants are afraid to take away. Repeat this after me: Not every senior needs a discount to keep patronizing your business. 

The idea that seniors are a group in need dates back to the 1930s, when America’s senior citizens were disproportionately poor and the Depression wiped everybody out. That's why President Roosevelt passed the Social Security Act, which gave federal assistance to the elderly.

Well, here's a newsflash: Seniors aren't the poorest among us anymore. The national poverty rate, according to the 2014 Census, is 14.8 percent. For seniors 65 and older, it's just 8.7 percent, while for children under 18 it was 21.1 percent. Maybe it's children we should be offering discounts to? (And for what it's worth, when restaurants do discount meals for kids, they also shrink the portions. So what they're really doing is selling a smaller portion of food, not discounting the price for them.)

Seniors, like my (now-deceased) aunts, would tell you how discounts are a way of honoring or showing respect to our elders. I fail to see how 75 cents show a whole heck of a lot of honor and respect. Maybe the way to honor them is to fund Medicare to the level where it would pay for some of the things most seniors actually need: eyeglasses, hearing assistance, and dental work? And if we really respected their age and the wisdom that presumably comes with it, why aren't we hiring more of them instead of making them feel unwelcome in the workplace and telling them how they aren't a good "cultural fit?"

And that's where the harm part of senior discounts comes in. People in their 60s can't have it both ways: They can't insist they are somehow entitled to pay less to get into the movies and in the next breath ask to be seen as a younger person's equivalent -- like in a job interview. We are equal all of the time or none of the time. But not just when it suits us.

As noted by Dan Campbell in a USA Today Op-ed piece, senior discounts actually "add insult to injury to the very people who are being saddled with trillions of dollars in debt to support entitlement programs for the elderly, such as Medicare and Social Security." I would say they add injury too. Businesses have overheads and profit margins to meet. If discounts are given to a few, the higher prices are being paid for everyone else. While I'm not advocating means testing at the movie ticket booth, to assume that every silver-haired person who flashes an AARP card actually needs the $3 off or he'd skip the movie would be pretty ridiculous.

Of any age group, senior citizens are the most likely to have a mortgage-free home, a retirement nest egg, Social Security income and a job-related pension.

The data are indisputable that seniors have continued to fare better financially than younger generations, noted Campbell. A Pew Research Center survey found that from 1984 to 2009 (years that include the Great Recession), the median net worth for people 65 and older increased 42 percent, while the median net worth of those younger than 35 dropped 68 percent. Maybe discounts should be given to those who carry student debt or still live with their parents. How about a discount to those 30+ who still need to live with roommates to pay the rent?

Let's face it: Across-the-board senior discounts begin as early as age 50. That's about the same time when the top income-producing years kick in for skilled workers and managers.

The accomplishment of retaining a pulse should not be grounds alone for discounts.

What about you? What do you think?

 

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