Friday, October 4, 2013

Blissfully Growing Old

When you wake up in the morning and run to the bathroom, do you ever stop to think how grateful you are for indoor plumbing?  You don’t have to put on your boots and slog through the mud to an outhouse or use a not-very sanitary pot stored under the bed until it can be emptied outside.  Having a warm, dry and relatively clean bathroom nearby is something that most of us are so used to that the thought of any other arrangement never crosses our minds.  It’s expected.

This occurred to me as I read a UN report, not on bathrooms, but on the aging population.  “By the year 2050, for the first time in history, seniors older than 60 will outnumber children younger than 15.”  An elder rights group, HelpAge International, co-sponsored the research.  Their primary concern is that “most countries are not prepared to support their swelling numbers of elderly people.”  Like indoor plumbing, we don’t even question this.

When did it become the responsibility of the governments to support older people?  In the US it apparently was in 1935 when the government decided that people older than 65 should receive additional support in the form of Social Security.  (It would be funded by other people by a tax on paychecks.)  Later (1983) the full retirement age changed to 66 and will slowly increase to 67.  These changes were likely based on finances and politics rather than some scientific or moral agreement that 66 or 67 was the right age for older Americans to stop being totally responsible for their own livelihood and to expect the government to take over.

The UN report recognizes that resources are not unlimited and that without changes many governments have made promises that they soon will no longer be able to keep.  What they don’t recognize is that the primary assumption that the government is morally responsible for maintaining this older population is problematic.  As everyone accepts it, this assumption takes the pressure off citizens to plan for their own futures.  They don’t have to save and can engage advocacy groups to help them complain whenever there is a threat to their “rights.”  This complacency is evident in common stories of elders who are totally dependent on Social Security and can't make ends meet when Medicare increases eat up cost-of-living adjustments. 

One day it will be like getting out of bed and finding the bathroom door nailed shut or a broken water main in the street.  It will cause panic.  If you don’t believe it, consider all the minor panics that are taking place during the government shutdown or due to the sequester.  Temporary loss of free daycare and National Parks, having work hours cut by 20%, or losing a paycheck for a few weeks doesn’t compare to living 65 years and suddenly realizing you should have put away some savings.  We have expectations.  We have rights.  We don’t even question the premise.  If resources are limited, that’s someone else’s problem.

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