By Ron Kokish
When it comes to aging, America has changed. Thanks mostly to a reduction in childhood mortality, more than 80% of Americans born in 1957 lived to be 65 this year. At over 54 million, the 65+ group is now almost 17% of the country. In contrast, in 1940, when the first Social Security checks were issued, people 65 and older were less than 7% of the population. At birth, their life expectancy was less than 40 years. The relative few who attained 65 could expect to live another 13 years, years often characterized by rapidly increasing frailty and dependency. Many that age were plain worn-out. All too often, “retirement” wasn’t a choice. For better or for worse, retirement was in their cards.
Today’s older generation was dealt a different hand. Our extra years are generally enhanced by the lifelong good health our parents and grandparents made possible and by miracles of modern medicine like joint replacements and fountain-of-youth drugs. Less than 4 million of us live in residential care facilities, while over 11 million are part of the active labor market.
Retirement has changed too. I left the workforce 18 years ago and moved to a nice home in Carbondale. I had more time for my newest grandchildren. I skied, traveled, read, hiked, biked, attended plays and concerts and made new friends. I was lucky and I knew it. Much of this, I didn’t plan or expect. None of us did, but here we are. Many of us can choose to leave the paid workforce, but “retire” while we can make a difference? To me, that seemed a dereliction of duty. Merriam-Webster’s core definition of that word is: “to retreat or withdraw.” Was I “retiring”? Or was I “rewiring”?
Our grandparents and parents bequeathed my generation health, wealth and enough social stability to look forward to and enjoy a more comfortable life. Lately, I’ve been asking myself what sort of world we are leaving to those coming after us. There’s marvelous technology that could offer near idyllic lives. Yet the technology also seems to be exacerbating social unrest. We made progress on civil rights, but domestic tensions and hatreds remain. We made it technically possible to eliminate worldwide hunger, but the gap between rich and poor keeps growing, and hunger remains commonplace, even in our own country. And, all the while, we appear to be consuming our civilization into extinction. For 30 years, we managed to maintain a kind of “pax americana.” During this last month, we’ve been learning how ephemeral that is. We are the first Americans whose children may be less wealthy and long-lived than their parents. We could reasonably be labeled, “The Luckiest Generation.”
So, I didn’t retire in the way Merriam-Webster defines it, and neither has much of my generation. For the most part, today’s older Americans are independent, active and integral to their communities, as diverse and capable as any age group, and doing the same things everyone does. We shop online and in local markets, cook meals, patronize restaurants and get unproductively angry in traffic. We ski, travel, hike, bike and play Wordle. We are resilient.
Early research shows that although we are at highest health risk from COVID-19, we coped better than other age groups with the social isolation the virus necessitated.
Although some of us use more social supports as we get older, we tend to remain present and active in our communities. We are a major source of volunteerism. We are the most dependable and educated voters. People between 61 and 75 give more to charity than other age group. Ditto for supporting political issues and candidates. We are active participants in policy making from the local to national level. We are 17% of the population, pay 18% of Federal taxes and have the lowest tax delinquency rate. We sit on countless boards and committees and hold elected offices. America’s two most recent presidents are in their 70s.
The once-feared “Silver Tsunami” of dependent retirees hasn’t materialized because we are adapting. Instead of waiting to be cared for by others, we are caring for one another and helping care for our communities too. As an AARP Age-Friendly Community, Carbondale is committed to identifying commonalities among all ages, maximizing the talents of every age group and ability, and evolving in ways that leave no one behind. Organizations like “Third Act” help bring our generation’s considerable economic and political resources to bear on modern problems by supporting the work of younger people while making, as John Lewis so accurately named it, “good trouble” of our own.
Mature Content is a monthly feature from the Carbondale AARP Age-Friendly Community Initiative (CAFCI)