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Mark E. Williams, MD

Are Old People a Social Luxury or a Cultural Necessity?

Exploding another destructive aging myth.

“Most people don't grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.”
― Maya Angelou

Are older people really a social and economic burden? This destructive myth is unjust, unfair and unwarranted on many levels. Society often seems to care about individuals only so far as they are profitable and young people fear this. Their anxiety about entering adult life mirrors the old person's distress when excluded from the larger society. Between the two generations, the social wheel turns and people let themselves be crushed by it when they fail to consider their options.

Part of the problem is that many of us have an overly narrow view of productivity as being the old manufacturing production line process. As long as you are on the production line you are contributing to society but when you step off the line you are considered a drain on resources. In an industrial society human value often becomes measured only in terms of immediate productivity and profit.

This mindset is narrow and unjustified. Consider unpaid work such as volunteering, raising children, caring for an ill relative or managing a household. Are these activities unproductive and an economic burden on our society or do these activities not only reduce costs to the larger society but also contribute to societal welfare? As we age the likelihood increases that we will retire from paid activities. Do we then become a societal burden with no other ways to meaningfully contribute to society? Since we do not keep national statistics on these activities the numbers we collect and report do not reflect this vitally important aspect of human productivity. We urgently need to develop broader and inclusive productivity measures.

Another problem with viewing old people as a burden is that aging involves our future selves. Old people are not a disenfranchised minority; they are ourselves in the future. This fact presents a delicious irony: those people with negative views of aging and elderly people have sealed their own future. As Walt Kelly’s comic strip character Pogo remarked on Earth day in 1971, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Based on our other myths and misconceptions we erroneously assume that aging will increase our disability and dependency. As a result, we presuppose that the increases in life expectancy will disproportionately magnify the costs of health care and social support. But where is the evidence for this assumption? Countries such as Japan are aging more rapidly than the United States and they are not going bankrupt from the increased “graying” of their population. Healthcare costs depend far more on the mechanisms of care delivery than on the demographics of a population.

Older people are not profligate consumers of healthcare. To be sure elderly people take more prescription drugs, see doctors more often and require more hospitalizations compared to younger people. But these factors do not imply that most of our health care expenditures are aimed at the elderly population. Throughout the history of health care a person’s last illness has always been the most expensive regardless of age.

The key point is that aging does not simply extend latter stages of dependency and incapacity. Rather it is that our health and social systems have not provided adequate opportunities for individual contributions and self expression. A readjustment in our social consciousness is urgently needed as people spend more time in retirement than in childhood and adolescence. We simply cannot afford to squander such valuable human resources.

How a society chooses to organize the division of labor reflects its cultural values and provides great emotional significance to the individual. Currently the status of old people has become strongly ambiguous with changes in the workplace. As the comic strip “Dilbert” reminds me daily, the workplace is not always fair. Job discrimination based on age is illegal, but business reorganizations with mergers, acquisitions and downsizing seem to have a disproportionate effect on older workers.

Should mandatory retirement ever be based on age? An irony is that in several instances older airline pilots just weeks before mandatory retirement have successfully avoided major disasters. Another irony is that a significant number of the most powerful people in the world, U.S. Senators and Congressman, Supreme Court Justices, foreign heads of state and military and religious leaders are of such advanced age that they would be forced to retire from many U.S. corporations.

The satisfactions from work are central to self-definition, self-esteem and social status. Our views of meaningful contributions after retirement are too narrow when individuals seem valuable to society only as long as they are profitable. People who accept this belief deny themselves and generate much future distress in their lives. As we refine our abilities to split atoms and tinker with our stem cells and our DNA we need the voices of capable, experienced workers, leaders and thinkers. Perhaps the aging workers of our society are not a social luxury but are a cultural necessity.