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See the Big Picture

We’re on the verge of a Senior Epoch. And we’d better start taking it seriously.

Events that herald the graying of America are now cascading as the boomer generation begins crashing through 60th birthdays, qualifying for Social Security and challenging the financial future of public and private pension plans, Medicare and Social Security—even as medical advances continue to extend our active lives.

An important new study by the Stanford Center on Longevity puts a wider lens on the familiar statistics. America will continue to “age up” for decades. The over-65 sector will double—from 40 million today to 89 million, and from 13 percent of the population today to 20 percent, by 2050. Policymakers may be focused on the stability of Medicare and Social Security, but the wiser focus is the profound impact of these demographic trends on every aspect of American life—our families (think multiple generations under the same roof), our neighborhoods (think suburbs designed for nuclear families now joined by older people and singles as well), our health (the number of people afflicted by Alzheimer’s could double in 20 years), our public policies (Social Security remains the nearly untouchable third rail of politics) and our economy (imagine capturing the productivity wasted by early or forced retirement).

Today, for every person over 65, there are five people in the workforce. In 40 years, there will be three workers. The financial underpinning of the nation’s entire retirement safety net is at increasing risk the longer Social Security, Medicare and pensions for current retirees rely on the taxes and contributions of current workers.

“As a society,” the Stanford study concludes, “we can no longer afford to ignore the reality of the tremendous population shifts already underway—the opportunities and costs are simply too significant to ignore.” In other words, programs rooted in the 20th century no longer meet 21st-century realities.

This is a message conveyed clearly and frequently by the late Robert N. Butler, M.D. Raised by his grandparents on a farm in southern New Jersey, he devoted his professional life to making the most of the longer lives Americans now live—“productive aging,” he called it. He celebrated the added dec­ades of active life gained during the 20th century, he established the National Institute on Aging, and he warned 42 years ago of ageism (a word that he coined) at work and in society. He pleaded passionately for greater emphasis on geriatric medicine and for more and better caregivers. In May, shortly before he died, he published “a call to action on aging,” an essay in which he urged “transformational thinking” about work and retirement planning, technology and long-term illness.

At the dawn of the Senior Epoch, it’s appropriate that we embrace the big picture as a tribute to Butler’s pioneering service—especially because he was absolutely right.

Jim Toedtman is editor and vice president of AARP Bulletin.

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