Ready or not, an “age wave” is coming that could make or break our nation.
Two-thirds of all the people who have ever lived past the age of 65 in the entire history of the world are alive today. When our Constitution was crafted, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was barely 36 years and the median age was a mere 16. During the time of our founding fathers, there was no anticipation of an age wave. Today, the average life expectancy at birth is 79 and is steadily rising. In this regard, we are living in truly unchartered territory and longevity is humanity’s new frontier.
This demographic transformation will create exciting family, lifestyle, social contribution, and marketplace opportunities as well as unprecedented medical, fiscal, and intergenerational challenges. Are we prepared? No. Are the candidates addressing the full force of this age wave and offering innovative solutions? No. Has the media (of all persuasions) been covering this issue and all its facets in proportion to its social, political, and economic importance? No.
It’s time to move aging/longevity issues to the political main stage. Based on 40 years of research, dialogue, analysis, and activism on aging/longevity, I believe that the following four essential transpartisan issues must be addressed if our newfound longevity is to be a triumph rather than a tragedy.
Editor’s note: Noted gerontologist and author Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., (right) says pivotal issues brought about by our aging society are not being adequately addressed by either candidate during the presidential campaign. Because of this, he has crafted this op-editorial piece outlining four issues that must be addressed during the remaining months of debate and discourse leading up to November’s election.
ISSUE #1: Moonshot needed – to beat the diseases of aging before they beat us.
Until recently, most people died swiftly and relatively young of infectious diseases, accidents, or in childbirth. As a result of modern medical advances and public health infrastructure, we’ve managed to prolong the lifespan, but we have done far too little to extend the healthspan — as pandemics of heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s and diabetes are running rampant.
For example, Alzheimer’s (and related dementias) now afflicts one in two people over 85, and it has become the nation’s scariest disease. Its sufferers are anticipated to grow from 5+ million today to 15+ million as the boomers age, with its cumulative costs soaring to $20 trillion by 2050. Just as President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, dedicated the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, we must set a bold goal of stopping Alzheimer’s within a decade. But our scientific priorities are woefully out of synch: for every dollar currently spent on Alzheimer’s care, less than half a cent is being spent on innovative scientific research. Our doctors are also not aging-ready. We have more than 50,000 pediatricians, but fewer than 5,000 geriatricians. Only eight of the country’s 145 academic medical centers have full geriatrics departments, and 97% of U.S. medical students don’t take a single course in geriatrics.
Questions for the candidates:
• What bold measures would you take to beat Alzheimer’s before it beats us?
• Shouldn’t it be mandatory for medical and nursing schools to teach core geriatric skills to all students?
• Considering 34 million people are providing care to an elder loved one, what changes should be made to the tax code and work leave policies to help them out?
ISSUE #2: Averting a new era of mass elder poverty
According to the Government Accounting Office, roughly half (52%) of all households near retirement (headed by someone age 55+) have NO retirement savings and about half (51%) of our population have no pensions beyond Social Security. We could be heading to a future in which tens of millions of impoverished aging boomers could place crushing burdens on the U.S. economy.
As our demography continues to tilt older, the impact of these numbers on working Americans will be massive. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, or an issue that only impacts “seniors.” Preventing a new era of mass elder poverty is a demographic issue that will affect us all — in our minds, hearts, and wallets. It will have a particularly strenuous impact on the Millennial generation. On top of this, we are not fostering financial literacy or responsibility among the young (many of whom might live exceptionally long lives). For example, 37 states require providing sex education to high school students by law, while only 17 states require financial education.
Questions for the candidates:
• How can we cause Americans to save enough to be able to afford their longer lives?
• Describe Social Security and Medicare as you think they should be for the Millennial generation. And shouldn’t all young people learn about money management in high school?
• Considering the substantial “asset inequality” among older adults, should we affluence test entitlements to give more to those in need and less to those who are not?
ISSUE #3: Ending ageism
In Colonial times, elders were respected and honored for their wisdom and perspective. In addition, because the primary American industry was farming, it was grandpa and grandma who usually owned the property and decided who did what and who inherited what.
In addition, in the years before scientific theories of disease, it was thought that those few men and women who lived to a great age were the beneficiaries of divine will. During the industrial era, all of that turned upside down. Now, in our youth-focused society, gerontophobia (fear of aging and discomfort with older adults) runs rampant. As a result, institutions across the board—such as urban planning, education, technology, employment hiring, housing, and popular media (where advertisers will pay networks far more for a 30-year-old viewer than one who is 60) — are both youth-centric and ageist.
For example, our homes were not built for aging bodies: less than 2% of our housing stock is built to be safe and accessible for elders (and one-third of the elderly fall each year). Similarly, the routes of public transportation were created with young workers, not retirees, in mind.
Questions for the candidates:
• How would you propose wiping out the ageism that is pervasive in America?
• How should our communities become more “aging friendly?”
• As they age, millions of people struggle with mobility and transportation — and corresponding social isolation. How should that be remedied?
ISSUE #4: Establishing a new purpose for maturity
Today’s retirees feel they are in the best time in their lives to give back. And they do. They already contribute both more dollars and volunteer time than any other age group — doing everything from teaching schoolchildren to read to helping their peers recover from loss to building homes for Habitat.
Going forward, medical science can — and will — increasingly prolong life. Yet, considering the abundance of time affluence that retirees enjoy, we haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s time for our political, religious, and community leaders to create a compelling national vision for the purpose of all those additional years. For example, our 68 million retirees currently spend an average of 49 hours (2,940 minutes) a week watching television. Ultimately, the problem may not be our growing legions of older adults, it may be our absence of imagination, creativity, and leadership regarding what to do with all of this maturity and longevity.
The unprecedented historical challenge/opportunity of the age wave is how we can unleash our greatest growing natural resources that are hiding in plain sight: experience, skills, and wisdom.
Questions for the candidates:
• Do we ask too little of our elders?
• What is your biggest idea for what America’s 68 million retirees could be doing to contribute to our society?
• Why do you think this is the right age for you to be president? Are you an aging/longevity role model?
An age wave is coming, and we’re not ready. Just as society’s institutions were grossly unprepared for the baby boom, we have done far too little to prepare for the coming age wave.
Do we as a nation have the guts and wisdom to ask — and answer — these questions? I believe we do. Time and time again Americans have proved that we are a creative, industrious nation with tremendous capacity for improvement and transformation. I surely hope that the candidates are prepared to address these critical issues and boldly make the course-corrections necessary to usher in a healthy and purposeful future of aging.
Ken Dychtwald, Ph.D., is a psychologist, gerontologist, documentary filmmaker, author of 16 books and founding CEO of Age Wave, a company that since 1986 has advised businesses and non-profits worldwide about the opportunities and challenges of an aging population.