The Who sang, “Hope I die before I get old.” I can’t say I’m personally hoping for that, but on the flip side I do think more now about my impending senior years. Minimally, I know I’ll be in good company. Of all the people in human history who ever reached the age of 65, half are alive now. People 65 today can expect a minimum of 20 relatively healthy years, and that number will rise to 30 by the time the last of us Baby Boomers hit retirement.
Let that sink in a bit. Add to it the reality of the birth rate in most developed countries being only about 1.2 children per woman (2.1/woman is required for a stable population). Then factor in that most developing countries, where the birth rates are considerably higher are, well… developing. And the inexorable trend is that birth rates fall as standards of living increase.
When you put this altogether, what you see is a trend where there are fewer in the younger generations and more in the older. One of the obvious implications to this is that programs like Social Security and Medicare are ultimately unsustainable. In Germany, France, and Japan there are already fewer than two working adults supporting each retired person. The US isn’t far behind. But does that mean we simply abandon these popular social programs? I don’t think so, but I do think it means rethinking “retirement.” And I think that’s maybe a good thing.
The prospect of being retired for 30 years is frankly a little disconcerting. It’s hard to project that far forward, but easy to look that far back. 30 years ago I was in college. That was several lives ago. I’m not the young man I was then in many many ways. In the same way that my life has not been static across the last 30 years, it won’t be static for 30 years of retirement. At least I hope it won’t. That would be a dreadful thing to look forward to. Similarly, I also don’t want to be doing what I do now for the next 50 years. So what does one do?
The problem is that most of our workplace culture is designed around the model of taking people from young adulthood to retirement. The prospect of getting back on that Merry-Go-Round is not all that appealing. I don’t want to go back to school, get a new entry level job in another career and work my way up the ladder again. My needs, my ambitions, and my skills at that point will be very different than a young adult’s. There’s no family to start and provide for. There’s not the drive to succeed and compete, and working 60 hour weeks has lost its appeal. Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt. It’s more about being useful, valued, and compensated enough to offset living expenses. Sure, Wal-Mart has figured out how to exploit that niche, but we can’t all be greeters. Most of the world doesn’t really know what to do with, or how to incent, the older generation.
Seniors are an enormous resource. They have experience and wisdom that only comes with life. We can’t afford to just pay them to play shuffleboard and do crosswords. And as they are (or we will be) an ever widening slice of the population, we can’t afford to try and succeed without their contributions. Part of making this work has to be figuring out how to create jobs that leverage senior’s skills in an environment that’s sensitive to their needs and appealing to people at this different stage of life. Something I don’t think is happening much if at all today.