Sunday, January 27, 2008

"No Country for Old People": Washington Post Outlook today

The Washington Post Outlook Section B1 ("Commentary") has a headline "No Country for Old People?" The subtitle reads "It's a tough time for seniors these days and getting tougher as the economy slumps. How can we enrich Americans' later years?" The headline obviously "exploits" the current hit "black comedy" film and Best Picture nominee, Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men," actually set a generation ago in the 1980s.

There are several provocative articles. On the right-hand column, Mark Freeman has "One More Time, With Meaning," here. This discusses the attitudes of the workplace toward aging. Corporations used to "expect" people to retire in the 50s and would push them out the door with buyout packages, and encourage them to start taking social security at 62. Gradually, companies, NGOs, agencies and individuals are trying to develop the right culture for "second careers" for boomers. This is difficult to pin down. There is a strong idea in many sectors that boomers should go out and "sell things," especially to other seniors, things like annuities, financial planning or Medicare Advantage (replacements or supplements). There is also an undercurrent in becoming involved in social work or social activism. One of the obvious opportunities for career switching would be into teaching. This works well for people with the right temperament. Retired military often do very well as teachers because they have developed the right "people skills" associated with the chain of command. IBM has been working on a teacher career switching program. People who have worked in technology largely as individual contributors and who were not parents themselves (or even some who were parents but in more culturally sheltering circumstances) may not have the empathy or psychological desire to act as authority figures in the lives of other people's children. This can be an issue for older GLBT people. On the other hand, if a separate market existing for AP math and science in high school, career switches might be able to move directly into these with much less certification education and without the need for "pseudo-parenting" skills.

Another article is "The New Alone," by Elizabeth Marquardt. The link is here. While starting with the issue of longer lifespans and lower birth rates (the latter may actually be reversing itself in the United States), the writer discusses the effect of unstable family structures on adult children of seniors, who themselves may have been through cycles of divorce and remarriage, creating complications (step-parents, half-siblings, etc.) and uncertainty as to who should be responsible for eldercare.

The most disturbing article may be "A Hidden Crime," by Marie-Therese Connolly, link here. The author will do a Q&A session for the Washington Post on Monday, Jan. 28, at 1 PM, link here.
The article deals with crimes against the elderly, sometimes by relatives or live-in boarders, as well as the extreme neglect in some nursing homes and retirement homes, which may have trouble hiring dependable help. She refers to Bette Davis 's quote "old age ain't for sissies" ("Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?") She makes the point that our society has focused on increasing longevity without a corresponding prolongation of vigor. The elderly live longer but become increasingly frail and dependent for a longer number of years. She calls this "the longevity paradox." This can have serious implications for adult children, especially in small families, and would lead to concerns about filial responsibility already discussed on this blog.

The January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Policy has, on p. 82, an argument by John B. Shoven: "New Age Thinking: The aging of the world's baby boomers won't be the crisis we fear: What we consider "old" has become old-fashioned," link here. Shoven argues that what really matters is morality at a particular age, and expected life span at any age increases relative to what it was in the past. The problem is, as Connolly's article (above) points out, the number of years of frailty and adaptive dependence may increase, and the number of years where one consumes and cannot produce or contribute in the competitive economic system seems to increase, raising moral issues about family responsibility.

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