It is the dawning of the age of senescence, and the evidence of society’s fallen arches is everywhere – on the covers of major magazines, at the top of Google’s list of most popular searches, with fashionably silver-haired talking heads, leading the nightly news.
Of course, we’ve seen this coming for some time. It’s been decades since the wiser demographers among us issued their first warnings about the geriatric crunch we now face. That most populous of generations, the post-war baby boom, would one day cease to be young, and the rallying cry for millions of arthritic ex-hippies would become, “You can’t trust anyone under the age of 50”.
Still, the Atlantic magazine’s October issue’s main story makes it official: As we’re all living longer, it’s now cool to be gramps.
“Since 1840, life expectancy at birth has risen about three months with each passing year. . .If about three months continue to be added with each passing year, by the middle of this century, American life expectancy at birth will be 88 years,” writer Gregg Easterbrook notes in his piece, “What Happens when we all live to 100?”
What happens, indeed?
As Easterbrook points out, “Longer life has obvious appeal, but it entails societal risks. Politics may come to be dominated by the old, who might vote themselves ever more generous benefits for which the young must pay. Social Security and private pensions could be burdened well beyond what current actuarial tables suggest. If longer life expectancy simply leads to more years in which pensioners are disabled and demand expensive services, health-care costs may balloon as never before, while other social needs go unmet.”
On the other hand, he writes, “If medical interventions to slow aging result in added years of reasonable fitness, life might extend in a sanguine manner, with most men and women living longer in good vigor, and also working longer, keeping pension and health-care subsidies under control. Indeed, the most-exciting work being done in longevity science concerns making the later years vibrant, as opposed to simply adding time at the end.”
It’s a sort of glass-half-empty-full proposition, which is a safe call if you happen to reside in a relatively affluent, vibrant jurisdiction that offers plenty of professional and cultural opportunities to younger, well-educated workers.
But what if you don’t?
“The proportion of people aged 65 and older was highest in the Atlantic provinces and lowest in the territories,” Statistics Canada reported last month. “Among the provinces, the highest proportions of seniors were in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (18.3 per cent in both cases), while Alberta (11.4 per cent) recorded the lowest. The nation’s youngest population lived in Nunavut, where seniors made up 3.7 per cet of the population.”
Meanwhile, “Population aging was most rapid in Newfoundland and Labrador, where the proportion of people aged 65 and older rose by 9.5 percentage points (from 8.2 per cent to 17.7 per cent) between 1984 and 2014. Population aging was also rapid in New Brunswick and Quebec (+7.8 percentage points for each province) over the last 30 years.”
As laughably hip as the mainstream media likes to make growing old appear, economists pose serious questions about social and economic costs an aging, steadily less productive workforce impose on the generations coming up behind it.
“Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established,” writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel, a 57-year-old oncologist, bioethicist and vice-provost of the University of Pennsylvania, in an Atlantic piece, which accompanies Easterbrook’s.
“Conversely, distractibility increases. We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower. It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity. About a decade ago, I began working with a prominent health economist who was about to turn 80. Our collaboration was incredibly productive. We published numerous papers that influenced the evolving debates around health-care reform. My colleague is brilliant and continues to be a major contributor, and he celebrated his 90th birthday this year. But he is an outlier – a very rare individual.”
As for the rest of us, not so much.
That neatly explains the meaning of Emanuel’s article, the title of which I’m even tempted to endorse: “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”