Answering Half-Asked Questions from Doomsayers of Aging

By Cohen, Gene D. | Aging Today, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

Answering Half-Asked Questions from Doomsayers of Aging


Cohen, Gene D., Aging Today


The United States economy has come to the forefront of public debate this election season, and perceived burdens on America's fiscal health are increasingly under scrutiny. Alarmist conversations about the fiscal drain of the aging population are already resurfacing. Doomsayers have long captured public attention by depicting inevitable doom and gloom related to the growing number and longevity of older Americans.

Currendy, for instance, the billion-dollar Peter G. Peterson Foundation is sponsoring a multimedia IOUSA film, book and media campaign to convince Americans that the United States has dug a "$53 trillion hole" in government liabilities, mostly entitlement obligations, especially Medicare and Social Security.

DISTORTED ASSUMPTIONS

The risk is that depictions of ascending costs and inevitable decline discourage motivation for creative strategies, problem solving and the development of innovative solutions. Such thinking reflects what the late historian Daniel Boorstin poignantly noted: "The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge." The doomsayers about longevity in America operate under illusions of dire consequences and impossibilities based on half-asked questions. The questions, properly asked, will help focus these discussions about the new era of longevity with the sense of possibility that elders and the United States deserve.

Distorted assumptions and data depictions aggravate the situation, feeding nihilism. Among the biggest data distortions is one fostering the illusion of hopelessness and a bankrupt American future, For example, consider the doomsayer mantra that the percentage of those ages 65 and older in the U.S. will only grow and result in an ever-rising ratio of those receiving Social Security in relation to those contributing to the program's coffers. Active workers - taxpayers - are often portrayed as shrinking in number as they bear the weight of the mounting older population.

The doomsayers' characterization is wrong, however, because it is based on a half-asked question: How will the escalating number of those ages 65-plus affect those in the workforce? Besides the fact that most economists also consider the full dependency ratio of current workers to nonworkers, including children, the question of doom does not pay accurate attention to the rest of the question - What will actually happen to the size of the entire population as the United States moves toward 2050? Keep in mind that all of those who will be 65 or older in 2050 are alive today.

All the data in the graphs below are official U.S. Census Bureau population data. (See the website at www.census.gov/ ipcAvww/usinterimpwj.) In making projections, the Census Bureau uses three levels - low, middle and high. The three graphs in this article, formed from midlevel Census Bureau population projections, reveal the reality absent from doomsayer depictions.

Graph A shows the steep rise of the older population through 2050, when the curve, is still elevating sharply. This curve is the one used by the doomsayers, who say the United States will never keep up with the ever-escalating ranks of older adults.

But look at what happens with the increase of those ages 65-84 in relation to the whole U.S. population (Graph B). For 2030, census data project mat nearly 90% of those ages 65 and older will be in the 65-84 subgroup. Note the steep decline around 2030; in 202.9 die youngest boomers turn 65, and in 2031 die oldest boomers turn 85. This decline is in marked contrast to the doomsayers ' negative forecast of boomers being a burden on their children 's generation.

CROSSOVER EFFECTS

What about the potential so-called burden of those surviving to the oldest ages? Data do suggest that the 85 and older population, when compared witíi those ages 65-84, may experience a crossover effect whereby those who cross beyond age 85 might do so because they are in better health - a factor that analysts would have "to consider apart from numerical relationships alone. …

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