Red, White, and Gray: The High Cost, and High Rewards, of Longer Lives
What do you get when you combine longer lives with a lower birthrate? What do you get when you combine longer live with an exploding birthrate?
Revolution is what you will you get. What that looks like has yet to be determined but society, politics and culture as we know it today will change dramatically.
And that change won’t come easily.
Live long and prosper? You bet. Americans’ rising longevity threatens fiscal calamity and generational warfare. But we have reason to think a grayer society is a richer society.
It’s noontime on a Wednesday at the town dump in this small (population: 6,600), middle-class community 30 miles south of Boston. This means that Bill Weleck, a 64-year-old retired mail carrier, is due for his four-and-a-half-hour work shift. He bicycles in, as usual, and dons a town-issued, fluorescent-green vest and a pair of gloves, then starts sorting through bags of plastic bottles in search of recyclables. The air is a tad pungent, but that doesn’t bother Weleck, who looks forward to the work. As he puts it, “What would I be doing at home? This gets me out into the community.”
Weleck isn’t working for wages. He is compensated for his time by an abatement on his property taxes worth up to $750 per year. The state’s “senior property tax work-off program” is popular with fiscally strapped Massachusetts towns that can’t afford to pay union-scale wages for needed work. Some 30 residents in West Bridgewater, ranging in age from their mid-60s to mid-80s, can be found not only at the dump (a much-desired worksite among the men) but also at the library, the forestry and maintenance departments, and the warrens of town hall. “The girls I have-and I call them girls-want to learn,” said Karen Lavin, a Building Department supervisor for a rotating crew of seniors who greet customers at the window, answer the phones, and help to process permits. “In my opinion, they’re worth every penny.”
Americans, it’s no secret, are living longer than ever. Life expectancy at birth, currently about 78 years, is increasing at the rate of roughly 1.5 years per decade. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day. The number of Americans age 65 or older, a mere 20 million in 1970, is on track to rise from about 40 million today to some 70 million by 2030. The share of seniors in the population, now about 13 percent, will reach 18 percent by 2030. The ranks of Americans who survive into their 90s are expected to soar from 1.9 million in 2010 to 9 million in 2050.
Long life may well be a blessing for the individual. But is it also a blessing for society? The fashionable answer is an increasingly anxious no. Choose your apocalyptic metaphor. The aging of America represents a “financial time bomb,” The New York Times has proclaimed-with the solvency of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (the last in line for nursing-home payments for patients who have depleted their assets) all at risk. Foreign Policy magazine has warned that a “gray tsunami is sweeping the planet,” the United States included.
And yet the forecast that Americans’ increased longevity is a collective downer for the nation ain’t necessarily so. The fiscal threat, while real, provides too narrow a prism for understanding a question so complex. History suggests that the size of the total economic pie tends to grow larger as life expectancy rises. From 1950 to 2010, Americans’ life expectancy at birth grew by 15 percent and, at age 65, by more than 30 percent-even as household incomes and the gross domestic product increased sixfold.