To a Ripe Old Age


John Wright


I recently celebrated my 59th birthday. That occasion gave rise to many thoughts about aging, so I decided to bore all of you with my musings about the "progression" of life as we move along in the early part of the 21st century. No, this is not a self-centered whine. It is a reflection of what it means to get older at this time in history in the USA. Alas, some of you may remember hearing about the baby boom that followed WWII. I missed being a baby boomer by, what, a year? Yet my son born in 1964 is considered a baby-boomer. How absurd! My parents were simply advanced in their child planning (uh, huh). Iím the real byproduct of that era.

So here I am, passing into the realm of the essentially irrelevant people, except, of course, for our "vote." Hey, irrelevant in this context means we are no longer part of the advancing career group or the up and coming group of recently and currently educated young people. We are has-beens. I love it! You know, I have had my ticket punched plenty of times in my 59 years and I am most happy to pass the baton on to the "young."

Let me be clear Ö I have done it all Ö many more times than once for things I liked Ö and you can try to figure out all the ramifications of that declaration. I did what I wanted to do so often that I am now jaded. I have reverted to doing simple things that give me basic pleasures, like construction projects, and I know that my pleasure comes in part from doing that which my ancestors had to do to survive, only in my case the activities are pure hobby. I should also add, every board sawed or electrical outlet installed is a simple but joyful accomplishment. I like where I am in my life.

I especially enjoy my grown children and my grandchildren, for the dividend of lifelong love and caring that I heard about as a child is so true. There is a joy in having family continuity, but even that is dwarfed by how much I really like my offspring and theirs. And that includes the life partners of my children. I am most pleased with their choice of mates, who exemplify all of the really important values and show character that I truly respect.

I find that I meet my wants and needs by spreading my time across multiple endeavors. I love to cook, because I love to eat (that will be the death of me!). I love to reflect on life and pay attention to current events, as my history is one of reflection and analysis. This leads to me creating articles like the one you are reading and, to date, one book. If nothing else, my experience allows me to place everything around me now "in context." And at times I appear cynical. I hope you understand that my apparent cynicism is a product of my expectations, which were somehow implanted or developed within me as a child. I was and am an idealist.

As a general rule, I do not write an article unless something piques my interest or stimulates my disdain. This article is no exception, for I am, at the moment, considering the impact of aging people on our society. Any fool will have heard or read about the upward shift in the average age of the USA population, which is no surprise given advances in medical science, the baby boom and generally smaller families among the young people today.

I was struck by the realization that we now have conflicting objectives in our society regarding older people. On one hand, it is nice to know that medical science has increased our life span such that men may expect to live to age 80 and women to something less than 90. Towards that end we are pressured to follow good health habits, both to enjoy the extra years and to pose less of a burden on HealthCare systems.

Indeed, as we may live far longer than our ancestors, we pose a considerable financial strain on companies that provide us pensions and lifetime HealthCare benefits. The same is true regarding our longer consumption of Social Security funds and use of Medicare. This simple and obvious truth is the reason companies are modifying their benefit programs to eliminate pensions for newer employees. At the same time they are passing on ever larger percentages of HealthCare costs to those of us who were promised lifetime HealthCare benefits. I might chew on the companies for that rather unethical practice, but I also appreciate that neither they nor we anticipated that we would live so long.

The Federal Government has also been changing entitlement programs to reflect the reality of an expanding older population. Our costs for Medicare and the supplemental plans to cover what Medicare does not are increasing and are likely to increase substantially in the next ten years. Social Security ages for starting full benefits have been stretched to age 67 and will be stretched farther. It is a simple matter of economics and not a plot against the older people (yet).

Thus we see the first of the conflicting objectives discussed within this article. It is not simultaneously good to maintain good health to a ripe old age and also drain the society of pension and tax revenues. So far, older people are mostly societal drones who do not contribute to the present or the future. That may change in the future but until some reasonable balance is developed between cost and contribution there will be increasingly worse financial penalties for older people. They may live a long time in relative poverty.

Now lets take a look at conflict number two. Companies know that true creativity and long hours of effective labor are the province of the young. It is a simple truth; established by reviewing the timing of life accomplishments of our most notable people Ö most of them did the most when they were young. Thus, a company has a strong incentive to retire older higher paid employees, for they are comparatively less effective due to creativity decline and generally lowered stamina levels, not to mention cumulative boredom making them rather unmotivated. There is, you see, a time when getting your ticket punched, yet again, has no positive meaning. One might offer a counter-argument about the value of experience for the older people, but the problem is the way we do business changes rapidly today, and much experience in old ways is of little value.

Thus, the second conflict is that of having no place for older people in the ambitious company compounded by the attitude of the older people who simply want to drop it all and retire, if they can afford to do so. So it is that we do not see companies shifting older employees to lower paying jobs that do not require much stamina or creativity. It is the older employees who want to retire while the company wants to eliminate the cost those people represent, both while working and in retirement.

If you read between the lines you realize that there is no sound reason to live an extra ten or twenty years if one must continue working the same old job to survive. The whole point of working hard for thirty to forty years is that there will be a time of relaxation and enjoyment, without job pressures, for ten or more years, after which health declines in a relative sense and death becomes most sensible. There is no point in being responsible in health practices while young if the end game is extended work years or eventual poverty.

Now lets look at conflict number three. As I see older retired or displaced people working jobs at McDonalds or the local Staples or Home Depot, I see many jobs disappearing that are badly needed by young people. Thus, the older people are indirectly responsible for part of the high unemployment rate among our young people. This is a sad collision, as we do need, as a society, to provide ample jobs for young people so that they might also get their shot at life.

Well, we found we could adapt to the two-income family as our society transitioned to that reality between the 1960ís into the 1990ís. The price? Two people work for a combined income with the purchasing power that existed from one income in the early 1960ís. We didnít gain at all financially as individuals or families. And we lost our "free" time. Thus, the economic pie can be divided into as many slices as there are people, but each gets less. In our near future, we will likely see the fruits of the old people/young people job problem, and the result will be to have more jobs at lower wages. That is not a pretty picture for either the young or the old. And looking only at wage rates distorts the reality of lowered purchasing power due to inflation in the most desirable items and tax increases.

Finally, as we are now aware of the ramifications of our aging society, it is necessary to seek solutions that are humane and sensible. At a practical level, it is most unlikely that we will find means to keep interest and creativity high as people get older, at least within the next twenty or thirty years, due to our leadersí fears about genetic engineering and stem cell research. It is also illogical to assume that healthy living will ultimately save the society money, for all of us die, almost always with very high costs for medical procedures as we approach our demise. Nothing points to a change in that truth, whether I die at 70 or 90. That I might stumble along for ten or twenty years in relatively poor health as a pill consumer or dialysis patient need not matter in an economic sense if we regulate pharmaceutical company profits.

Lets assume for the moment that all of us could remain healthy until age 90, after which we would fall apart like the "One Horse Shay." Given that we will not be full of stamina or particularly motivated to work, the question becomes how to care for us in our final ten or twenty years without posing a burden on the rest of society? Clearly we must not be out competing for jobs or have the necessity to do so, for that practice causes displacement for the young people and us. Second, we cannot expect to live as freely financially or in choice of our surroundings as we did when we worked. We must move out to make room for younger people and in turn be certain of having a nice but diminished existence in retirement facilities that are federally subsidized for lodging, food and medical care. Our cost? Our inferred pensions (future cost to previous employers) and our Social Security benefits, and a portion of our other accumulated wealth must be entry point tickets to a fully funded retirement facility.

Social Security was originally seen as providing financial security for older people, provided they worked throughout their lives and had deductions from their income to support Social Security costs. I am proposing the same thing with more of a bite, such that any citizen who has worked diligently for a full career gets future lodging, food and health care benefits in full. Moneys saved prior to using the retirement facilities would mostly but not entirely be available to enhance quality of life. Participation in use of the facilities would be optional but failure to do so would cost the retiree the Social Security benefit and the inferred pension benefit until such time as they "joined the program."

Thus, wealth would enable some people to ignore the program, but by far the majority of us would participate by necessity. Meanwhile, we would not be burdens to our children or grandchildren, or be victims of inflationary effects.

I know that federal programs tend to be cost ineffective for lack of watchdog activities regarding costs. It seems to me that our nationís vast abundance of food, and our governmentís ability to negotiate special volume pricing for pharmaceuticals, leaves only the lodging and staff cost considerations to be resolved effectively. We can do that if we decide it is important.

Most important, the dream of retiring and having lots of years of play and relaxation can be realized without societal discontinuities or displacements. And those who choose to volunteer time to helping others within the facility or in the larger community will be comfortably busy.

Do you believe the idealistic proposals in the past six paragraphs are realistic? I hope not. The most fundamental truth that has spanned all centuries in all places is that human life is valued only when the humans in question are essential. Where, pray tell, did the hand-waving glorious solution I seemed to propose above include any consideration of the fundamental consideration of value based on essentiality? There was none. When we live in societies that are willing to send off their young by the thousands to die in stupid wars, what makes you think those same societies will be humanitarian to the non-contributing old people?

Perhaps it is time to see the future of expanding older populations realistically. I know that will be painful for those who "qualify" but reality is virtually always the smartest and kindest way to consider your next steps in organizing and executing your life plan. In short, we are not sufficiently advanced in our societal processes or our technology to provide for increasing populations of the aging infirm and non-contributive people. So far, we cannot and we choose not to pursue immortality or true permanent physical youth. That ugly fact underpins my belief that you have no choice but to provide for yourself, and that you must decide the time of your demise based on your perception of quality of life.

Your quality of life in the future still depends on your genetic inheritance as well as your willingness to preserve your health and your wealth. Moreover, you best have deep pockets, for neither government nor business will want to or be willing to support you in a high quality manner. Worse, your children and grandchildren have their own life problems and they certainly donít need or want to add yours to their life equation. And if you are considerate about the quality of their lives you will take steps not to depend on them for your physical survival.

You must understand that the quality of the medical care you do receive will be based on your ability to pay for it. Medical entitlement programs will collapse in terms of quality of service, and in some instances life-saving procedures will be denied to you based on your age. The most simple and accurate truth is this: entitlement programs for the elderly will become about as humane as the medical environment in our prisons, which are known for their extremely limited protocols, pharmaceuticals and low quality physicians.

It seems that living to a ripe old age is fraught with problems because you are not and will not be perceived as essential opposite your needs. The longer we live the worse it gets, and corrections to our government and business programs for retirees are inevitable and aimed at eventual elimination at a practical level.

You are, in short, supposed to die soon after you stop contributing. Nothing has changed that simple historical truth. There is no sense in expanding the population of the aging infirm, so steps will be taken to stop that evolution by killing off the unnecessary through inadequate care.

Ultimately, you will be wise to plan and provide for both your retirement and the timing of your death. My advice is to get your personal life goals tickets punched as early as possible so that you can approach your death with the satisfaction of knowing that you have "done it all." Realize that death itself is not the problem. There is a problem only when a life has been lived incompletely, such that deferred gratification is deferred permanently, which is stupid.

Well folks, what do you think of these prognostications? Are you pleased, angry, disbelieving or simply depressed? Wake up and smell the coffee, and realize that living to a ripe old age is just as silly now as it has always been, and fraught with societal conflicts. So ... do what you want while you can, and then throw in the towel. You will not live well in old age unless you happen to be wealthy and possessed of great genetic inheritance. At best you will likely have healthy poverty, and at worst, unhealthy poverty. Death is preferable once you have "done it all."

Today we see an endless battle between those who believe in assisted suicide and those who donít. The problem is we have taken a most personal right and delivered it up to our legislatures to chew on. The simple fact is there is no right or wrong except for the belief of the individual. Do know that Switzerland has no problem legally with assisted suicide. You might keep that in mind for a future time if laws in the USA continue to be passed by pandering to the ultraconservative religious nuts, who have no right at all to tell you what to do with your life. I suspect that death pills and/or simple procedures you can do with common household products to cause your death painlessly will become available on the black market soon.

Ahh Ö to a ripe old age!