EMERYVILLE, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–An age wave is coming that could either make or break America. Yet the issue has received little attention in the current presidential campaign.
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. In this regard, we are living in truly uncharted territory and longevity is humanity’s new frontier. As the baby boomers turn 70 at the rate of 10,000 a day, America is becoming a “gerontocracy.” Already, 42% of the entire federal budget is spent on Medicare and Social Security. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, this will exceed 50% by 2030. In the 2012 election, older adults out-powered all other age groups with 72% of men and women 65+ voting, while only 45% of those 18-29 did.
This demographic transformation will create new social contribution and marketplace opportunities, as well as potentially devastating medical, fiscal, and intergenerational crises. Are we prepared? No. Are the candidates addressing this age wave and offering innovative solutions? No. WHY NOT?
These are the questions being asked by Ken Dychtwald, PhD, author of 16 books on aging related issues and CEO of Age Wave. Based on his 40 years of research, dialogue, and analysis, Dr. Dychtwald believes there are five essential transpartisan issues that must be addressed if our newfound longevity is to be a triumph rather than a tragedy.
Issue #1: What is the new age of “old?”
Our economy is hinged to 19th century notions of longevity and old age. When Otto Von Bismarck picked 65 to be the marker of old age in the 1880s, the average life expectancy in his country was only 45. Similarly, when Social Security began, the average American could expect to live only 62 years, and there were 42 workers paying for each “aged” recipient. Today life expectancy is approaching 79, and due to decades of declining fertility, there are fewer than three workers to pay for each recipient. And we have to ask, is 65—or even 67—the right marker of old age in the 21st century? As our demography continues to tilt older, the economic impact of these numbers on working Americans will be massive. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is not an issue that only impacts “seniors.” The designated age of “old” in the 21st century is a demographic/social/economic issue that will affect us all. Left unchanged, it will have a particularly brutal impact on the millennial generation.
Issue #2: The diseases of aging could be the financial and emotional sinkhole into which the 21st century falls.
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—with pandemics of heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. In addition to being quite costly, our healthcare system is incompetent at preventing and treating the complex conditions of later life. For example, Alzheimer’s (and related dementias) now afflicts one in two people over 85, and it has become the nation’s scariest disease. Unless there is a breakthrough, its sufferers are anticipated to grow from 5+ million today to 15+ million, with its cumulative costs soaring to $20 trillion by 2050. But our scientific priorities are 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.
Issue #3: 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 will place crushing burdens on the U.S. economy and on the generations forced to support them. On top of this, we are not fostering financial literacy or responsibility among the young. For example, 37 states require providing sex education to high school students by law, while only 17 states require financial education.
Issue #4: Ending ageism
In Colonial times, elders were respected and honored for their wisdom and experience. During the industrial era, all of that turned upside down. Now, in our youth-focused society, many people of all ages are gerontophobic—uncomfortable both with older adults and their own aging process. And many institutions—from urban planning, to technology, to employment hiring practices, to housing, to 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 1/3 of the elderly fall each year).
Issue #5: The new purpose of maturity
Today’s retirees feel they are in the best time in their lives to give back. And they do: contributing 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 for Humanity. Going forward, medical science will increasingly prolong life. But political, religious, and community leaders have yet to create a compelling vision for the purpose of those additional years. For example, our 68 million retirees currently spend an average of 49 hours 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, experience, and longevity.
A letter is being sent to each major candidate asking them to articulate their views on these five critical issues.
A written copy of Dr. Dychtwald’s views and a recording of his April 21 press briefing, including the specific questions on these issues that he believes the candidates must address – with fact sheets and related data and sources, can be accessed at www.agewave.com/candidates.