By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Once upon a time ever-increasing longevity was the mark of a successful advanced industrial society. Now, according to the latest manifestation of conventional wisdom, it’s the bane. Countries are aging—and not gracefully, it’s said. You can have too much of a good thing, including old people, it seems.
Mass (Media) Hysteria
There's been a blizzard of demographic scare-mongering: I can’t call it mass hysteria, exactly, because it occurs in elite publications, too. Alarmist copy cat articles are popping up everywhere. Here are some which have appeared in the last few weeks:
“The Old World,” in the New York Times Magazine for October 17, 2010
“The Graying of the Planet” in Foreign Policy for November 2010.
“The Demographic Future” in Foreign Affairs for November-December 2010..
And the pictures! Especially the one that's becomethe heart-tugging cliché: a row of very old people hunched on a bench, apparently staring at nothing. I look at the pictures and muse, “Why aren’t they doing something? If they can walk to the park, surely they can be usefully engaged. They can absorb themselves in something interesting.”
They could, probably, unless they’ve been convinced of their uselessness. According to current conventional wisdom, people over 65 are hopeless deadwood. They're become human shells with nothing but dying on the agenda, and people, whether ghetto kids or octogenarians, tend to perform to expectations, high or low.
Branding the Old
Actually, huge numbers of officially old and very old people are performing useful tasks, well paid, ill paid and unpaid. With a little encouragement, others could join them. More about that later. Let’s stray first into the matter of “branding” old age. Let’s see how images have evolved
A long time ago age was synonymous with wisdom. Who but the elders had enough memory and experience to guide the tribe? Then the alphabet arrived. And writing. And books. Today the human memory itself is pretty much passé. We have enormous libraries. We have giga-plus bytes of computer memory. We also have the youth culture and the senior moment, which stereotypes the not-so-young brain as an unreliable filing and retrieval system. Misplace the car keys? Stumble over a name? Time to hand over the power, the status, the salary to impatient and ambitious younger folk. Time to enter the allegedly golden years of leisure, which is to say, to be warehoused first in segregated retirement communities and ultimately to be stuffed into poorly-staffed old age homes. Either way: out of sight, out of mind.
Remember when women were “put on a pedestal” to keep them from noticing their actual second-class citizenship? The equivalent for the elderly was the invention of "senior citizen" status for those granted the privilege of enjoying some well-earned "golden" years of palm-shaded golf and responsibility free grand parenthood. The image was enticing, alluring, hard to resist: smiling white-haired couples (love is eternal) framed by an attractive background. The image was soothing to the displaced and soothing to the displacers, although it was really only a glitzier version of the marooned-on-a-bench life.
Tossing Mama from the Train
Unfortunately, the house by the golf course isn’t looking so possible anymore. The days of the defined pension are just about over, increasingly replaced by defined contributions and unpredictable payback. To translate: you give; we get, take our cut and promise nothing in the way of returns or protection of capital. What a scam! The financial "advisor" is protected from market risk, but the retiree isn't.