The Meaning of Aging and the Future of Social Security

By Cole, Thomas R.; Stevenson, David G. | Generations, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Aging and the Future of Social Security

Cole, Thomas R., Stevenson, David G., Generations

What vision of a secure old age should be embedded in this cornerstone of the American welfare state?

Later life in the West today is a season in search of its purposes. For the first time in human history, most people can expect to live into their seventies in reasonably good health; those over eighty-five are the fastestgrowing age group in the population. Yet the words of aes-ro every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven"carry little conviction when applied to the second half of life.

Between the sixteenth century and the third quarter of the twentieth century, Western ideas about aging underwent a fundamental transformation, spurred by the development of modem society Ancient and medieval understandings of aging as a mysterious part of the eternal order of things gradually gave way to the secular, scientific, and individualist tendencies of modernity Old age was removed from its place as a way station along life's spiritual journey and redefined as a problem to be solved by science and medicine. By the mid twentieth century, older people were moved to society's margins and defined primarily as patients or pensioners.

Because long lives have become the rule rather than the exception, and because collective mean ing systems have lost their power to infuse aging with widely shared significance, we have become deeply uncertain about what it means to grow old. Ancient myths and modem stereotypes alike fail to articulate the challenges or capture the uncertainty of generations moving into the still-lengthening later years. The modernization of aging has generated a host of unanswered questions: Does aging have an intrinsic purpose? Is there anything really important to be done after children are raised, jobs left, careers completed? Is old age the culmination of life? Does it contain potential for self-completion? What are the avenues of spiritual growth in later life? What are the roles, rights, and responsibilities of older people? What are the particular strengths and virtues of old age? Is there such a thing as a good old age?

In 1979, the English writer Ronald Blythe wrote in The View in Winter that "the ordinariness of living to be old" was too new to appreciate. "The old have ... been sentenced to life and turned into a matter for public concern@' he wrote. "They are the first generations of fulltimers and thus the first generations of old people for whom the state, experimentally, grudgingly, and uncertainly, is having to make special supportive conditions. " Blythe suggested that it would soon be necessary for people to learn to grow old as they had once learned to grow up.

These perceptive remarks already have the feet of a bygone era. At the tam of the twentyfirst century, the long-rising tide of modernity is turning; beneath the much heralded "age wave," uncharted postmodem cultural currents are breaking up conventional images, norms, and expectations about aging and old age. The large percentage of public economic and medical resources devoted to older people has spawned a fierce debate over intergenerational equity in shrinking welfare states. Meanwhile, writers, filmmakers, advocates, and elders are defying negative stereotypes and images of old age. Within the List decade, we have also seen renewed interest in the search for meaning in later life -variously called "conscious aging,' "spiritual eldering," or "spirituality and aging@ And in 1999, the United Nations' International Year of the Older Person program is making a concerted effort to emphasize that older people are active agents as well as dependent beneficaries, sources of wisdom and guidance as well -as recipients of healthcare and income transfers.

The meaning of later life is not only a matter of cultural values and personal experience; it is also linked to values and assumptions built into social policy. In our view, the current debate over the future of Social Security needs to be examined not only in the usual fiscal terms but also in moral and existential terms: What vision of a secure old age should be embedded in this cornerstone of the American welfare state? We begin with a historical review of the value tensions that have shaped Social Security since its inception and offer a brief analysis of the social meanings at stake in the current debate over the future of the program.


Social Security has always been defined by competing values. From the program's beginnings in 1935, proponents have struck a balance between the rhetoric of offering assistance and the rhetoric of administering insurance. Although the Social Security Act included public assistance for low-income elders, Old Age Assistance (Title 1) was meant to provide temporary relief until the contributory system (Title II) could take effect. In particular, President Roosevelt and his advisors thought that it was important to distinguish Social Security from welfare to ensure support for the program. Even in the midst of the Depression, "welfare" had a stigma that could have prevented the program's success.

Rather than representing a major shift in opinion about individual or governmental responsibility, income support for retirees was promoted as a logical response to the Depression. In part@ the Social Security Act arose from the realization that poverty could result from factors beyond human control (Achenbaum, 1986). Individual and family misfortune did not necessarily indicate lax morals or an inadequate work ethic and, hence, was worthy of public intervention.

Yet, Social Security was also created within the context of a culture that valued independence and self-sufficiency Economic assistance was acceptable as long as it did not compromise these principles. The underlying conflict between Social Security as insurance and Social Security as assistance reflected a deeper ambivalence between self-reliance and mutual responsibility. Americans cherished the former while recognizing the need for the latter, and Social Security had to marry both of these concepts to be successful.

In rhetoric and in practice, workers have always "earned" their right to Social Security. Benefits are based on contributions and have a direct relationship to earnings. Under this model, the government's primary role is viewed as administrative rather than redistributive. This system is equitable in the sense that individuals are treated in accordance with their individual contributions. Yet, Social Security also adheres to a broader notion of fairness by providing a minimum benefit to all who are eligible. This broader concept of public assistance is not based on individual merit but instead on membership within a larger community. The equity promoted within such a system is based on the conviction that each individual is deserv ing of the benefit regardless of individual circumstance. Throughout the history of Social Security, policy makers have tried to balance these two conflicting concepts of equity within the program.


How we structure our Social Security program is inextricably linked to how we define a secure old age. Security for American elders is often promoted through the ideal of choice. Choice ensures security because it supports individual control, autonomy, and independence cherished traits in America throughout adulthood. Successful aging in this context means the combination of increased freedom in retirement with undiminished physical and cognitive functioning. It should not be surprising that many ofus fad to meet this standard. indeed, this myth of independence is perpetuated by the misguided belief that individuals should be able to fend for themselves, a belief reinforced by the popular misconception that Social Security is a contract in which the beneficiary and the contributor are perceived to be one.

Independence throughout old age and a filly finded Social Security system are in fact both myths. Most older individuals need to rely on external support at some point before they die, and Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system (current payments from younger generations go directly to older generations). Consequently, both independence in old age and the Social Security system rely on a transfer between generations. Rather than deny the existence of these transfers, we should embrace them and contemplate the relationships that are necessary to support them.

Burdenless living, independence, and selfsufficiency imply nothing about human solidarity. In fact, these ideals imply an absence of human relationships, at least in the interdependent sense. Instead of relationships, freedom is exalted as the primary good. This freedom no doubt includes the ability to conduct relationships on one's own terms-free of any necessity of exchange. Yet, as Michael Ignatieff (1984) has argued, if the welfare state serves the needs of freedom alone, it neglects the needs of solidarity and renders us "a society of strangers.' As we move forward in the Social Security debate, we need to realign the values that will guide future reform and emphasize community over isolated self-reliance.


Over the years, Social Security has kept many of our nation's elderly out of poverty (poverty rates for both older men and women are about one-fifth what they would be without Social Security) and has managed to do so without high administrative cost or major scandal. However, demographic and economic projections do not bode well for the program's future solvency. Although the program is not in imminent financial crisis, policy makers point to the coming "age wave" in their push to save Social Security for future generations.

As we engage in this debate, it is important to ponder exactly what we are trying to save. What kind of program do we want Social Secu-- rity to be? What ends should it serve? How will potential reforms alter the nature of the program? The inevitable cycle of dire predictions and fiscal rescue plans obscures the fact that larger questions about Social Security's meaning and purpose are often not addressed. If we want to ensure the sustainability-rather than just the affordability- of Social Security into the next millennium, we must address these more difficult questions before we proceed.

We must first decide what vision of social insurance we want to guide our Social Security program. Should we regard Social Security as a contract between and for individuals, or should it be an expression of community? Each option entails a different sense of fairness. If we envision Social Security as a contract that provides individual benefits in accordance with contributions, individual retirement accounts are perhaps a reasonable way to proceed. For many, individual accounts foster a sense of ownership and control that in turn promotes feelings of security. Regardless of the overall fiscal health of the Social Security program, each individual would have his or her own personal account. At a time when many assume that Social Security will not exist when they retire, it is easy to see the appeal of such an approach.

However, the individualized approach is deeply flawed. Individual accounts undermine the vision of social insurance as an expression of solidarity. Reliance on individual accounts subordinates the notion of mutual protection to the principle of individual choice. While this approach is consistent with the manner in which many older Americans find security, sacrificing the commitment to a basic retirement benefit for all is too high of a price to pay. If we bolster our social commitment to-and our collective confidence in- a decent minimum benefit, we would find security more easily in provisions of community than in arrangements for individual choice. Ultimately, we must reestablish the priority of sheltering individuals from risk over the ideal of personal gain.

Somewhat along these lines, some have advocated that Social Security benefits be targeted by income. Although the underlying logic of this position is appealing, the extreme of this approach-means-testing benefits-could result in the transformation of Social Security from social insurance to a welfare program. If what has happened to support for the means-tested benefit Medicaid is any indication, the widespread support that Social Security currently enjoys would dissipate considerably. A more reasonable approach is to reduce benefit payments to those with higher incomes, while maintaining a strong commitment to a decent minimum standard of living. Such an approach would be unfair from the perspective of individual equity (i.e., that individuals should receive benefits based on their own contributions), but would be beneficial for those who arguably need support the most.

Any discussion of targeting benefits naturally leads to consideration of the larger role of Social Security in retirement and, more specifically, the level of benefits Social Security should seek to provide. When Social Security began, retirement was a different entity than it is today. Average life expectancy and cultural norms about work and leisure meant that retirement was a short and unfortunate necessity. Social Security was created in part to encourage older people to retire from the workforce and to make way for younger workers. As individuals live longer and healthier lives, the possibility for an extended period of time after retirement becomes more likely. Indeed, our society has come to expect a long period of leisure when obligations ofwork and family life are complete.

In this context, Social Security influences retirement trends in important ways. First, the magnitude of individual Social Security benefits has a profound impact on retirement savings. The initial, modest aim of keeping older people out of the poorhouse has expanded dramati-- cally to provide the majority of post-retirement income. Two-thirds of today's older people rely on Social Security for at least half of their total income, and even the richest quintile relies on Social Security for more than 20 percent of income. In times of scarce resources, some critics ask whether it is efficient or desirable to offer a retirement benefit that makes individual savings less necessary.

In addition, the eligibility age for Social Security benefits influences when people retire. Although the eligibility age for fill benefits will increase from 65 to 67 by the year 2027, some believe that this change should be accelerated and even increased-perhaps to age 70-to reflect the improved health (and productive potential) of today's elders. Clearly, such a shift will have to grapple with cultural beliefs about when we are entitled to retire and receive pension benefits and also with such issues as job availability and age discrimination in employment.


Although Daniel Callahan's Setting Limits (1987) received less attention for its discussion of meaning and old age than for its resource allocation proposals, Callahan makes a persuasive case for the place of meaning in discussions of public policy. He argues that our modernized view of aging is hamstrung by its drive to remove the limitations of age and that it "lacks that most important of all ingredients for old age: a sense of collective meaning and purpose" Our orientation, Callahan posits, is toward an individualistic old age that gives us more of what we want (e.g., more years and less limitation) but illuminates little about the meaning and significance of those years.

The American vision of security in old age illustrates Callahan's point. As described above, we tend to feel secure when we are self-sufficient and in control. However, there are two main limitations to such an approach. First@ such a standard of security is almost impossible to maintain. Second, and more important, even if we were able to maintain control until the day we die, a tenuous notion of independence does nothing to anchor our connection to a higher spiritual or ethical purpose.

If we cling to our needs and aspirations as individuals alone, we will fail to realize a deeper sense of meaning that can only be achieved through connection to the larger social and spiritual community. To achieve this kind of security-rather than just financial securitywe need to develop a fundamental trust that we understand the order of the world in which we live (see Hashimoto, 1996). This cannot be done through reliance on a transitory notion of individual control. It must develop through a grounding in social relationships and spiritual beliefs.

The discussion of security almost inevitably turns to a contemplation of human need. Social Security (as well as Medicare) is premised on the idea that older Americans have a need forand a corresponding right to -security. A narrow view of these needs can be found in the typical realm of the welfare state-food, shelter, and medical care. In this context, the provision of Social Security is important for the delivery of the monthly benefits check alone. However, as Ignatieff (1984) has argued, our needs as individuals extend beyond mere survival and include the need to achieve our potential as human beings. This realm of need includes things that the state cannot compel-love, respect, and community. It is in this gap between our claims on the collectivity and our needs for the collectivity where meaning can be lost.

And yet thus gap between rights and needs is also where meaning is to be found. Ideals of later life are carved out of three basic dimensions of meaning: individual, social, and cosMiC (COle, 1992). We have reached the limits of what can be gained through the realm of the individual alone. It is high time that we accept the inevitable emptiness of such an approach and begin to foster our connection to the larger social and spirtual community Our cult of independence is inevitably- and ironically-plagued by a lack of true security and, ultimately, by a lack of meaning. A truly sustainable Social Security program must be grounded in the security of shared social meaning.

Public policy has a role to play in our search for lasting security and meaning As Social Security reform inches more and more toward a vision of individual accounts and individual equity, we must pause to consider the aspects of security that we are sacrificing in the process. Fiscal soundness matters, but it is not au that matters. Social Security reform and aging policy in the United States need to be socially and spiritually sound as well. Unless we look beyond the balance sheets of the future, our hopes and aspirations for growing older will be reduced to actuarial projections. We cannot afford to be so shortsighted.




Achenbaum, W A- 1986. So/Security. Vi/ow and Revisions New York: Cambridge University Press.

Blythe, R- 1979. The View in Winter. Reflecton on Aging. London: Harcourt Brace.


Callahan, D. 1987 Setting Limits: Medical Goals in an Ang Society. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Cole, T R. 1992. The Journey of Life: The Cultural Hamy ofAgog in Amenca New York: Cambridge University Press.


Hashimoto, A. 1996. The Giftof Generations. Japanese a on AgW and the SocialContract. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ignatieff, M. 1984. The Needs of Stra. London: The Hogarth Press.

[Author Affiliation]

Thoman R Cole, Ph.D., is professor and graduate program director, Institute for the Medical Humanities, University of Texas, Galveston. David G. Stevenson is a research associate/policy analyst, Center for Homecare Policy and Research, New York, N.Y

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