For over a year, media and pundits alike talked themselves into a frenzy as they counted down the days until we reached the “fiscal cliff” that would catapult us into unimaginable instability or the future moment when, armed with our own customized designer automatic rifle with matching carry-case, we’d shoot everyone we knew including ourselves in the foot based on the appalling statistics that now make America the homicide nation in the world.
Wow. What a distinctive title. Growing up, I imagined as an American there would be a number of wonderful claims I could make while traveling abroad – including land of the brave and the free – but that one? Never in my imagination could I have dreamt that up.
However, in the midst of all the noise and handwringing about these two serious issues, there is another issue that’s been neglected, unseen and unattended for far too long.
Except for occasional comments drawing attention to this critical issue on my radio show and in my columns, and several other pieces in the NY Times on December 6th , and again in the past several weeks in the same publication , very little focus has been paid to the iceberg I believe we’re going to hit at full steam ahead in the not-so-distant future.
Put quite simply, America has a fast-growing aging population. More than 13% of the US population is over sixty-five. And while that may not sound like an alarming number to anyone in the younger decades of their life, consider this: with the number climbing faster every year, that’s more than 39 million individuals, many of whom are going to run out of money faster than they’re going to run out of oxygen.
Retirement as a way of life is quickly becoming an antique relic that represents another time, another country and another place. Like the Great Depression. Retirement as we once perceived it has nearly disappeared. Very few people, once they reach sixty-five, can safely count on being able to afford to live a life of comfortable leisure until they die.
We’re living longer than ever before. Reaching our eightieth birthday is no longer the big deal it used to be. Instead of having to finance ten to fifteen years of an average life span filled with fun and relaxation, millions are faced with finding purpose and financial support for twenty-five to thirty years because reaching ninety and beyond is an every day occurrence. Thus, those who have now reached retirement age, having worked so hard and saved carefully for a anticipated life expectancy of seventy-five, their plans no longer hold up.
And as if that isn’t enough, add the hard cold reality that much of the income they had planned to utilize that would have sustained them until seventy-five or eighty has been drained by the recessions along with the Wall Street fiascos and schemes. To me, that spells disaster.
Given the tight current job market, 39 million people unable to make a living represent an iceberg of humungous proportions. Let me be clear. I’m not referring to just “baby-boomers.” Beyond that obvious, spoiled-and-pampered-for-far-too-long population bubble, there are millions of slightly older folks, including myself, who are over sixty-five, are highly experienced, wise, smart, seasoned, qualified, active, and vital, but who simply cannot find work. Any work. With no viable means to earn a living, this unseen, unattended group desperately needs and wants to take care of itself but can’t and probably won’t be able to find the income to do so.
Along with hard-working folks who have been struggling to stay above the poverty line throughout their lives, this number includes a newer group of professionals who have been put out to pasture and simply are going to outlive their savings.
No one will admit to age discrimination. It’s against the law. And yet it happens daily. And it’s done in the most disingenuous, cruel fashion. If an older person can even get through the door that no longer exists in this new social media, cyber age, they will often be met with that good ole standby: “you’re over-qualified.” Isn’t that a doozy? Don’tcha just love that one?
I’ve coached so many talented executives and colleagues who are eager, seasoned, vital and have so much to contribute but who are struggling with depression and despair because they realize they’re no longer sought after or wanted. While many entrepreneurs, like myself, have had small businesses to which to turn or rely on, many are left rudderless, adrift in worry, growing debt, dwindling savings and stress, unable to find a solution.
How could they when the hard cold facts tell a tragic tale: There is an immense demographic of over-sixty-five individuals who will end up living far longer than they can afford to, and for whom there will not only be any no meaningful work or income, but also no assurance that there will even be a roof over their heads or medical attention when needed.
When times are tough in this country and money gets tight, the first items proposed for the chopping block are Social Security and Medicare. While the arguments to cut or trim both are understandable and probably inevitable somewhere in the future, all that shearing will do is throw a deeply serious problem into stark relief.
And whenever the issue of proposed cuts to entitlements is raised, it also makes me question the ethical way to determine who gets less. Is it fair to take away equal sums from everyone who reaches retirement age? Shouldn’t those who have earned a great deal of income during their lifetime receive less support from the program than those who’ve earned a meager or modest living and need more help to survive?
Not everyone out there is blinded to the grim realities if entitlement programs are slashed. Believe it or not, there are even a few extreme GOP voices that have a valuable perspective to add to the issue.
But no matter where you stand on the dilemma and when you were born, the economic implications are stunning and terrifying and will impact us all. Teresa Ghilarducci, director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research, stated in an article in The Washington Post on February 16th that “This is the first time that Americans are going to be relatively worse off than their parents or grandparents in old age.
Millions of professionals who have paid their dues and taxes for years and worked their way arduously up the ladder with a promise that they would have a job for life are suddenly finding themselves with one foot on the rung and the other suspended in space with no place to jump safely without losing their life savings and security that they had planned on for those misnamed “golden years.” Golden, my foot.
It’s time the spotlight gets directed at folks who have spent forty or fifty years of their lives working hard, learning and studying, acquiring all sorts of priceless job and life experiences and who are suddenly finding, once they pass fifty, and certainly when they reach sixty, that they have become a persona non gratis, headed down the declining slope of life in a world where they are suddenly no longer valued, no longer sought after and generally unemployable.
That’s worse than tragic. It’s deplorable. Despicable. Unethical. Inhumane.
So what are we going to do about it? We’re accountable for the state of our country. We’re responsible to make things fair and right and equitable. Ignoring it and hoping it will go away won’t work. We do ultimately inherit the world we deserve. Maybe it’s time for less talk and more action.
This older population contains riches beyond measure, if only our culture and our country would wise up and realize the treasures waiting to be tapped. The alternative is frightening.
You can submit your questions or book private phone sessions with Olive at theinnerbottomline.com, explore her new blog at whatskeepingyouawakeatnight.com, or call into her blogtalkradio.com show, “The Inner Bottom Line,” at 661-449-1425 with your questions. All letters and calls can be anonymous and confidential.
Kindle and audio versions along with the hard cover of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life, are now available on amazon.com.