Fred Branfman on ‘The Making of an Elder Culture’
Posted on Nov 27, 2009
Before too quickly dismissing what Ernest Callenbach terms Roszak’s “call to arms for the aging but increasingly assertive boomers who will transform America and the world,” however, it is worth taking the time to consider his argument. For his call comes with a new twist: the real-life demographics and economics that may now make many counterculture ideals not mere hopes but necessities for survival. Few may presently wish to see America scale down and pull back, and prioritize welfare over warfare, but they may find they have little choice if they wish to avoid calamities beyond our present imagining.
Roszak embeds his vision in one incontestable fact: As 77 million baby boomers turn 65 between 2011 and 2030 and live far longer than Americans ever have and birthrates continue to decline, seniors will constitute an unprecedentedly high portion of the population. What he calls the “longevity revolution” will see tens of millions of boomers live into their 80s, 90s or beyond. (The 2008 Social Security trustees’ report puts male life expectancy at 82, female at 84, for those who reach 65 in 2010.)
As they age, baby-boom seniors are likely to find themselves needing increasing health care and living assistance to survive—whether in family homes, cooperative senior housing arrangements or nursing homes.
The Making of an Elder Culture: Reflections on the Future of America’s Most Audacious Generation
By Theodore Roszak
New Society Publishers, 320 pages
Members of a shrinking younger generation facing increasing unemployment and decreasing incomes, however, will find it difficult to keep their parents and grandparents alive on their own. Increasing numbers, especially women, are already shifting from raising kids to caring for aging parents, often for far longer than their parents spent raising them. Conservatives will claim that it is the job of families, not government, to take care of their seniors. But many families will find it impossible to care for both their children and parents without societal help.
Even under today’s probably unrealistic economic growth rate projections, the problems are daunting.
Social Security, which had 100 workers per beneficiary at its inception, has today a 3-to-1 ratio, which will become 2-to-1 by 2030. Its trustees estimate that $4.3 trillion in revenues will be necessary to keep it solvent. Medicare is in even worse shape, as its trustees recently reported: “The projected exhaustion of the HI [Hospital Insurance] Trust Fund within the next eight years is an urgent concern.” Roszak also notes that many boomers failed to save and/or have suffered major losses in retirement income as a result of the collapse of the Internet and housing bubbles or cancellation of promised company pensions. They will be hard-pressed to afford $50,000 a year for living in a nursing homes or even to survive on their Social Security payments. While keeping the present Social Security and Medicare systems solvent is relatively simple, the combination of all likely future senior needs will place unprecedented pressure on the rest of society.
And this is true even in the unlikely event that America’s economy grows as expected, e.g. at the 2 percent “intermediate” annual GNP growth rate upon which Social Security trustees base their current projections.
The U.S. economy could stay stagnant or even shrink as current policy bails out but fails to reform America’s deeply corrupt financial institutions, which continue the practices that nearly destroyed the world economy in 2008; as it fails to develop a national economic strategy to ensure that U.S.-owned companies lead in the renewable energy and other cutting-edge industries of the future; as U.S. creditors reduce their lending and, as recently reported, seek alternatives to the dollar standard; and as the U.S. continues to spend money it can no longer afford on war and its worldwide military structure. The Obama administration’s borrowing may restore some short-term growth, but what will happen when these sky-high debts become due and America cannot repay them?
Whatever America’s future level of economic distress, it is clear that the nation will have to make hard choices it has never faced before. Medicare provides a clear example of what is involved. As Roszak notes, “true, billions of dollars flow into Medicare every year, but none of it is paid out to seniors. ... The Medicare program should be seen as an income-transfer program that passes billions into the hands of the country’s richest class: physicians, health-care entrepreneurs, and drug and insurance companies and their investors.”
When Medicare growth is capped, and “waste and fraud” is addressed, the basic choice will be stark: maintain existing services to seniors by cutting health provider income, or maintain their income by cutting services and increasing the senior death rate. Similar choices will have to be made in many other sectors of our economy and society, affecting not only seniors but all those in need.
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