Red, White, and Gray: The High Cost, and High Rewards, of Longer Lives

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Live long and prosper? You bet. Americans' rising longevity threatens fiscal calamity and generational warfare. But we have reason to think a grayer society is a richer society.

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Reuters

WEST BRIDGEWATER, Mass.--It's noontime on a Wednesday at the town dump in this small (population: 6,600), middle-class community 30 miles south of Boston. This means that Bill Weleck, a 64-year-old retired mail carrier, is due for his four-and-a-half-hour work shift. He bicycles in, as usual, and dons a town-issued, fluorescent-green vest and a pair of gloves, then starts sorting through bags of plastic bottles in search of recyclables. The air is a tad pungent, but that doesn't bother Weleck, who looks forward to the work. As he puts it, "What would I be doing at home? This gets me out into the community."

Weleck isn't working for wages. He is compensated for his time by an abatement on his property taxes worth up to $750 per year. The state's "senior property tax work-off program" is popular with fiscally strapped Massachusetts towns that can't afford to pay union-scale wages for needed work. Some 30 residents in West Bridgewater, ranging in age from their mid-60s to mid-80s, can be found not only at the dump (a much-desired worksite among the men) but also at the library, the forestry and maintenance departments, and the warrens of town hall. "The girls I have--and I call them girls--want to learn," said Karen Lavin, a Building Department supervisor for a rotating crew of seniors who greet customers at the window, answer the phones, and help to process permits. "In my opinion, they're worth every penny."

Americans, it's no secret, are living longer than ever. Life expectancy at birth, currently about 78 years, is increasing at the rate of roughly 1.5 years per decade. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day. The number of Americans age 65 or older, a mere 20 million in 1970, is on track to rise from about 40 million today to some 70 million by 2030. The share of seniors in the population, now about 13 percent, will reach 18 percent by 2030. The ranks of Americans who survive into their 90s are expected to soar from 1.9 million in 2010 to 9 million in 2050.

Long life may well be a blessing for the individual. But is it also a blessing for society? The fashionable answer is an increasingly anxious no. Choose your apocalyptic metaphor. The aging of America represents a "financial time bomb," The New York Times has proclaimed--with the solvency of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (the last in line for nursing-home payments for patients who have depleted their assets) all at risk. Foreign Policy magazine has warned that a "gray tsunami is sweeping the planet," the United States included.

And yet the forecast that Americans' increased longevity is a collective downer for the nation ain't necessarily so. The fiscal threat, while real, provides too narrow a prism for understanding a question so complex. History suggests that the size of the total economic pie tends to grow larger as life expectancy rises. From 1950 to 2010, Americans' life expectancy at birth grew by 15 percent and, at age 65, by more than 30 percent--even as household incomes and the gross domestic product increased sixfold.

Thomas Malthus was wrong. Better health -- and longer living -- drives wealth

So, as counterintuitive as this may sound, it is possible, even likely--listen up, worrywarts!--for Americans to live longer and grow richer.

Everything depends on two variables. The first is the health of older Americans, now and in decades to come. Will we have a population of bedridden elders subsisting in nursing homes as wards of the state, or will seniors be relatively able-bodied contributors to the economy, whether by working or by spending money on golf outings or gifts for the grandchildren? The difference for society is huge.

The second crucial factor is public policy. Will government take an imaginative and flexible approach to contributions that seniors can make--as exemplified by West Bridgewater's tax work-off program? Will Washington relieve the fiscal stress on entitlement programs by, perhaps, raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare commensurate with the increase in life expectancy?

Nobody can say. But experts cite grounds for optimism, especially in regard to improvements in health. Medical advances make it likelier that seniors will spend a diminishing portion of their remaining days in pricy nursing homes. "People are staying healthier longer--we're not producing a generation of really sick old people," said David Canning, a professor of population science, economics, and international health at Harvard's School of Public Health. "From the individual's point of view, this is good news. From society's perspective, this is also good news."

How rare.

"NEVER ACT YOUR AGE"

The fancy term for what Canning described is "compression of morbidity" the squeezing of serious illness, of all "morbid" conditions that cause death, into as short a time as possible at life's end. Maximize the living, minimize the suffering, is one way to think about it. A personification of this principle is 106-year-old Signy Moen of West Barnstable on Cape Cod. Born in 1905, she tells of a childhood on a Norwegian farm with no electricity, of hopping on a ship to America by herself at age 18 ("I wanted to go places"), and of working as a Rosie the Riveter in a factory in Chicago making airplanes during World War II. And she recounts stories of her husband, who died in 1974"a good man; I miss him," she says, gently rocking in a parlor chair, a red blanket on her lap.

A wonderful life. But from society's point of view, maybe the most remarkable thing about it is how slight a financial burden Signy Moen represents. She lives not in a nursing home but in a house on grounds that her family owns. She doesn't take any prescription medicines--"I don't have any pains." (Her drug of choice is a nip of Baileys Irish Cream at day's end.) She fixes her own peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast.

The future promises more of these healthy, vibrant centenarians, according to Thomas T. Perls, a geriatric physician at Boston University's medical school and the director of the New England Centenarian Survey, the world's largest such database (which includes Signy Moen). The number of centenarians in the U.S. grew from 2,300 in 1950 to 79,000 in 2010--and may top 600,000 by 2050. Research could spur a new wave of age-delaying drugs; scientists are experimenting on removing "senescent cells," believed to accelerate the aging process, from mice.

Already, the United States is undergoing a sort of cultural revolution on aging--60 is the new 40, and all of that. The subject has spurred a burgeoning literature, stocked with recent titles such as 100: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith by Sonia Arrison (really, everything?) and Susan Jacoby's Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age.

Proselytizing for the revolution are the likes of "Dr. Roger"--Roger Landry, a physician who promotes "a culture of successful aging" in rousing speeches at senior centers nationwide. "Never act your age," he told a recent gathering at the Chatham Senior Center on Cape Cod. Why? "When you buy into that, it is buying into age as decline." The good news, Landry went on, is: "Your purpose doesn't end after you retire, your kids are gone, and the dog dies. You are now at a point of being unencumbered." Check any thoughts of moving in with the obliging daughter or son: "You never want to live with your kids," Dr. Roger advised, because "they want to make your life risk-free." On the slide screen flashed a quotation from the 19th-century novelist George Eliot: "It's never too late to become what you might have been."

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Paul Starobin

The writer is a contributing editor to National Journal and the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.

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