04/30/2014 04:59 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

Dare to Be 100: A New Old Age

Twenty-five years ago, as I was writing the first of my four subsequent books about aging. We Live Too Short and Die Too Long I proposed the term the AGE AGE to identify with part of the historical era in which we live. It certainly was not inspired, and is not a term that I am proud of. But I felt that there needed to be some differentiation from the "Space Age" and the "Computer Age? that were much more in vogue.

Many books have tumbled out since mine. Particularly notable was Pete Peterson's book, The Gray Dawn in 1999. (1) Peterson was a former Secretary of Commerce. His book served to highlight the major demography that is underway. Peterson remarks that two-thirds of all people who ever lived to the age of 65 are alive now. He asks "is demography destiny?"

In it he states that "global aging will become the transcendent political and economic issue of the 21st century."

He predicts that "the social contract in response to global aging will soon dominate the public policy agenda of all the developed countries." He quotes Maggie Thatcher as stating that she recognized that the iceberg up ahead was coming, but hoped that "the catastrophe would not happen on my watch." P. Peterson remarks about the $35 trillion in public pension benefits that are unfunded. The reflecting mirror shows no way out, we are inevitably burdening the future of generations beyond us. This is not a noble epitaph to leave.

The cover story of this week's issue of The Economist is entitled "A Billion Shades of Grey." This clever title captures much of the demographic imperative. We oldsters have lots of company. But all along, it is not the people numbers that matter so much as the impact they have on the world around us. I have always been absorbed with the basic question of whether as we age, we will become a burden or a blessing. A boom or a bust? These questions are still up for grabs. Both Peterson and The Economist equivocate in their response. There are too many intrinsic variables to give a clear projection. Immigration policy similarly impact, but if you think that the Western world has a problem with its aging cohort, take a look at China. What will they do with 600 million untrained old men without a support cast of old women to look after them? A big problem. A really big problem, and one that could affect international relations as a direct byproduct.

Certainly we're growing older, fast and in great numbers. But at the same time, we are getting smarter and more valuable in our intellectual competence. Hopefully this can trade-off against the tendency to stagnate and withdraw from the mainstream of life.

An invariable component of these editorial statements is the reality that old people vote. Politicians are very sensitive to this reality. The raising of the retirement age is a paramount consideration, and politicians are slow to address it, but much of our economic future depends on it.

I have always felt that my mother was personally responsible for the explosive national debt, because she continued to collect Social Security until the day she died at 95, obviously without Dad or her depositing to the bank beforehand. Numerous proposals suggest linking retirement benefits to longevity projections. The predominance of our 65-year target date originally proposed by Bismarck, centuries ago, is far outdated. My colleague Russell Lee used to state that 65 yoa represented "statutory senility" that had no reality in the actual world. Economic policy must reflect the biologic facts. No structural lag allowed.

"Is the best yet to be?"

Reference: Peterson P. Gray Dawn 1999 Random House, New York.