Since 1900, average life expectancy in the U.S. has increased by 30 years to 77. Expanded life expectancy is a global phenomenon and in some western countries, the number is even higher. This was accomplished through eradication of some diseases, management and prevention of others, advances in medical science, redistribution of wealth during the industrial revolution, public education and social programs.
The result today is a burgeoning population of people older than 65 that will nearly double in number by 2025, just 17 years from now. Dr. Robert N. Butler calls this historically unprecedented shift in age distribution The Longevity Revolution, which is the title of his new book, subtitled, “The Benefits and Challenges of Living a Long Life.”
Dr. Butler says he wrote the book “for a thoughtful public” to describe “the origins, challenges and adjustments” necessary to accommodate the new longevity and “to question contemporary assumptions about late life.” The range and detail of the book are extraordinary without being pedantic and in the heart of the book, he lays out both common-sense and radical solutions he believes are required to meet the needs of elders and society in general.
“We have the tools to take advantage of this exceptional demographic shift,” writes Dr. Butler. “But it will require nothing less than a total transformation of both the personal experience of aging and of cultural attitudes.”
Dr. Butler takes on the big questions of which a few are:
- Can we afford old people?
- How can resources be fairly distributed among generations?
- How will an aging population affect the economy?
- Will power be concentrated in the hands of old people?
- Will increased longevity worsen overpopulation?
- How can we reorganize the healthcare system to be fair and affordable?
Dr. Butler debunks the widely-held belief that healthcare and pension costs presage a crisis as the aging population increases. In fact, he shows, old people create wealth.
“Older people constitute a powerful and growing market, variously called the silver industries, the mature market and the senior market, which are all as significant as the youth market of the baby boom 1960s. Indeed, they are more so. Longevity affects the entire live course, including the amount people spend on health and in the financial services industries. Optimism about the future encourages people to save and invest.”
For the longevity revolution to succeed, Dr. Butler warns that ageism, a term he invented in the 1960s, will need to be overcome in all areas of the culture – social, economic, healthcare, and more - that are frequently based on myth and misinformation. As he notes in regard to age discrimination in the workplace:
“The stereotype equates aging workers with nonproductive drains on society, but, ironically, older workers who remain productively employed are most likely to remain healthy and able to contribute to society than those who retire…
“Learning ability, intelligence, memory, and motivation do not decline with age in the absence of disease, dementia, and depression and if one keeps active. Healthy older workers have fewer accidents than younger workers and often a stronger work ethic. Admittedly, perhaps one of the reasons studies of older workers are so positive is that only the most committed remain in the workforce.”
One of the few issues I take with Dr. Butler (a small one, to be sure) is that last statement. It could be that the studies would find even higher positive results if more of us were allowed to remain in the workforce by corporate America which continues to rid itself of elders in favor of less experienced and lower-wage young people.
Some other readers will take issue with Dr. Butler’s advocacy of population control. As he states throughout the book, longevity is desirable only when accompanied by high quality of life, and there are only so many earthly resources.
“Those interested in a longer life for themselves and their progeny had best support family planning and population reduction and stabilization.”
For those whose religion precludes types of birth control, Dr. Butler suggests an international priority for developing a method to predict the time of ovulation. And for those who say there is already not enough work to employ everyone, let alone a healthy, aging population, he states what should be obvious to the naysayers:
“Certainly , there is no shortage of work to be done to maintain and expand the quality of our lives – better housing, cleaner environments, and improved educational programs are examples.”
The middle of The Longevity Revolution is an extensive examination of current financing of old age with suggestions and prescriptions for the changes needed to pay for the future of it, including the politics and public policy changes required. Dr. Butler is cautiously optimistic that the necessary adjustments can be made, but warns of the enormous threats that must be addressed worldwide:
- Industrial pollution
- Global warming
- Nuclear, chemical and biological warfare
- Population growth
- Infectious diseases
- Poverty and malnutrition
(Providing, it seems to me, even more productive employment to fight those scourges.)
Dr. Butler covers so much ground in this remarkable book, it should be required reading for everyone. It is nothing less than a blueprint on how to save the world. Now, you and I must get to work to do our part. As he says,
“We need guides that help us live out our lives, enjoy longevity, and contribute responsibility to others in our later years…
“Perhaps in old age, there can be a return to the more elemental, powerful forces, the freedom that comes from having to obey a boss, a social structure, or even the scholarship of a lifetime. Perhaps it is old people who can point out the guideposts for others to follow in this new land of old age.”
Tomorrow: A Time Goes By Interview with Dr. Robert N. Butler.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Grannymar tells a poignant story of grief and bewilderment overcome in Marcia.]