Franklin D. Roosevelt was 63 when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died in 1945, just three months after beginning his fourth term and on the verge of victory in World War II. His closest aide, Harry Hopkins, resigned shortly afterward and died, exhausted. He was 55.
Among FDR’s adversaries, Wendell Wilkie, his 1940 challenger, died in 1944 at age 52. Thomas Dewey, his challenger in 1944, died at 68, and Sen. Robert A. Taft, a persistent Republican nemesis, died at 64.
Three generations later, George W. Bush turns 62 next month. Vice President Dick Cheney and Attorney General Michael Mukasey are 67, and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman is 69.
Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 81st birthday during this spring’s visit to America. At 78, he was the oldest person elected pope since 1730.
Alan Greenspan was 80 when he retired as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank and remains professionally active at 82. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 75. Lorin Maazel, 78, led the New York Philharmonic on its historic visit to North Korea and had as positive an impact on U.S. relations with that country as anyone in the last 50 years. Alan C. Greenberg, 80, former chairman at Bear Stearns, took a new job as vice chairman emeritus for JPMorgan Chase and declared, “I’m in the noon of my career.”
There’s a message here. Today we’re living longer, more active and more productive lives. Much is made of John McCain’s age. He’ll be 72 in August and would be the oldest first-term president if he wins in November. But longevity is the new reality. There may be many factors at play in deciding whether to vote for or against a candidate. But age should not be one of them.
More important are the parallel consequences of this longer life span and how they affect this year’s important presidential election.
First, there are more older voters. The nation’s 50-plus population has more than tripled since 1945—from 30 million to 94 million; that group now represents 31 percent of the overall population and 41 percent of all eligible voters. If normal voting patterns prevail, more than half of the voters this November will be 50 or over.
Second, and even more critical, are the challenges of accommodating and supporting 50-plus Americans and maximizing the opportunities they represent.
The world of work is changing as new technology alters the workplace and as the traditional compact between employer and employee continues to disintegrate. Without new ideas and educational initiatives, the prospect of financial security for our generation and our children’s is at risk.
Health care costs are soaring to the point that they are driving the burden of Medicare and Medicaid even more dramatically than the growth of the older population. There’s a striking imbalance between the growing number of older patients with complex needs and the shortage of skilled health care providers, between the need for family and professional caregivers and the scant attention and resources directed to geriatric training and education.
Understanding a larger context is crucial. “The issues confronting older people—individually and collectively—are not now and will not in the future be hermetically sealed from the rest of society,” write James H. Schulz and Robert Binstock, coauthors of Aging Nation. Nor can the solutions be. Navigating the minefield of health, financial and workplace issues efficiently and with equity poses a formidable challenge for the nation and its next president.