By the year 2020, eighty million Americans will be above the age of sixty. For the first time in the nation's history, senior citizens will outnumber young people under the age of 18. In America the Wise, Theodore Roszak examines the wide-ranging implications of this demographic shift not only for entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, but for civil society, corporate culture, media and advertising, family life, gender relations, and cultural attitudes toward death and dying.
Roszak believes that "the longevity revolution," as he calls it, could have a dramatic impact on America's social and cultural values. "Never before have elders possessed the social weight to make their values count in matters of policy and the distribution of wealth," he notes. The growing numbers of old people in America could bring about an unprecedented cultural shift toward a more nurturant caregiving ethos, an appreciation for social interdependence and cultivated leisure, a transcendence of competitive striving and status anxiety, and a greater appreciation of the wisdom that comes with age.
Roszak feels that we are "demographically illiterate" as a society and have not yet begun to grasp the implications of mass longevity. Most Americans who have considered the issue have done so through the distorted lens of the entitlements debate. "In astonishing numbers," he writes, "opinion-leaders have compliantly accepted the anti-entitlements argument at face value." Many people have been hoodwinked into believing that balancing the budget is more important than providing medical care for the elderly (or, at some point in the future, for themselves). They have been swayed largely on the basis of polemical materials "artfully assembled and vigorously disseminated" by the Concord Coalition, the Cato Institute, and other conservative organizations. Roszak explains that generational accounting can be profoundly misleading when it is taken out its human and historical context. Even if nothing is done about Social Security, he says, the system will remain fully solvent until 2032. After that, again even if nothing is done, it will be able to pay three‑quarters of what will be owed to the program's beneficiaries well into the next century. Social Security needs only modest adjustments to pay all of its obligations. Roszak stresses that just as we have made modifications in the system when they were needed in the past, so we will make them again. What is necessary to bear in mind, he says, is that without entitlements the burden of the dependent population would simply shift to middle‑aged children who are already stretched to the limit by the demands of leaner, meaner employers. Entitlements "are the arrangement we have made as a society for pooling a collective moral obligation and discharging it as practically, dependably, and fairly as possible."
Roszak goes on to suggest that the aging of the baby boom generation is likely to have a profound impact on America's civic and political landscape. For one thing, their collective voting power will increase as their numbers grow, and this will give them greater influence over the political agenda. Elders will have the chance to expand their own political interests into a "senior populism" committed to large-scale public programs and compassionate policies. While there is a wide range of opinion in the senior population, their values would clearly lead them to work toward expanding welfare state benefits and all goods and services related to those benefits. Voluntarism is also likely to increase as more and more seniors leave the traditional work force and devote themselves to occupations of their own choosing. For many, this will involve various types of community engagement and public service, such as tutoring and mentoring. Roszak contends that we need to rethink the traditional idea of retirement. By allowing the growing number of healthy, vigorous older Americans to drop out of the work force, we are squandering a major and growing national resource.
Roszak calls upon the senior generation to take up the task of being responsible elders to a younger generation that is asking for a better model of adulthood than our popular culture has so far given them. The wisdom of examined experience — the sort that grows from ordinary life as it is brought under reflection — can also serve as a corrective to the expertise and specialized knowledge that too often passes for wisdom today. "Much of the Promethean recklessness that has animated our technology in the modern world stems from an expertise that has lost touch with ordinary prudence, a know-how that does not know why," says Roszak. As we lay the foundations of a postindustrial moral order, it is essential for elders to assume a greater role in our affairs. That role ought not to be a mere extension of midlife getting and spending. "Far more challenging," he concludes, "is the task or remaining involved and responsible, but in a new key, one that sounds a note of gentleness and ethical responsibility."
Copyright 1999 by Scott London. All rights reserved.