Every day alarms are raised about the the burdens old people place on society. The growing “silver tsunami” will make life awful for everyone else we are told.
From government to employment to media and more, the conventional wisdom is that "the elderly" are all in poor health, dependent on others and if that's not so yet for any given individual, it soon will be.
Sick old people will swamp the economy, they say. We can't afford Social Security so we must privatize it. There won't be enough caregivers to go around. The sick old people will suck up all the money with nothing left for anyone else. So they shouldn't retire.
There are many important things to know about those generalities. Today - a couple of them.
It is true that more old people have health problems than younger people but that does not translate into disability or helplessness nearly as much or as often as many, even most, believe.
One respected study of tens of thousands of participants age 51 and older published in 2013 found that “For a surprisingly large segment of the older population, chronological age is not a relevant marker for understanding, measuring, or experiencing healthy aging.” More specifically,
”The researchers found that among individuals ages 85 and older, 28 percent had excellent or very good self-reported health and 56 percent reported no health-based limitations in work or housework.”
Further, even among the oldest age group, “nearly one-third have not been diagnosed with any of these five major chronic diseases:”
“The proportion of the population with no clinical diagnosis of any of the five major chronic diseases ranges from 75% of the 51–54-year-old population to 32% of the 85+ group.”
Those statistics do not mean that two-thirds of the 85+ group are incapacitated. Most are living on their own managing their diseases. Many other do well with, for example, a cleaning person once a week or Meals on Wheels deliveries or visits from a home health aide or a neighbor, friend or relative who helps.
If you pay too much attention to what is written and said about old people, it's easy to believe that all of them are incapable of caring for themselves. But you would be wrong.
It is true that people are living much longer than our parents' and grandparents' generations, that we are healthier than the general population believes we are, and that many elders want or need to work longer than traditional retirement age of 65 or 66.
But not many are allowed to. It's called ageism and it's illegal. But employers have all kinds of excuses the law allows them to get away with to fire or not hire people 50 and older.
Alongside the belief that all old people are disabled, is the growing one that elders should be required to work longer than age 65. Yes, I know that's a contradiction, but there it is in the media every day if you pay attention.
I've been reading these opposing points of views for at least a decade and here's what I think about that: No one gets to demand that people work past Social Security retirement age unless they remove the barriers that exist to keep old workers unemployed. Job seekers who are 50 and older must be allowed to find work as easily as they did when they were 25, 35, and 45.
And not just as Walmart greeters. People who insist old people work must allow them to have the kinds of jobs they are good at, that they are experienced in, that inspire them and allow them to be productive. Just as they have all their lives. Just as young people are allowed to expect.
Of course, this applies also to the any elder who wants or needs to work past traditional retirement age (although we also cannot penalize elders who are not capable of working any longer either but that's for another day).
I understand that the United States – and the world – is experiencing a confusing period when traditional jobs are disappearing, the “gig economy” is obviously not working and no one has an answer.
But as people and governments muddle through, people cannot be treated differently in the workplace based solely on age.
And you cannot, in the same breath, insist old people are all disabled, a drag on the economy and then require them to work past retirement age. That is irrational and gets us nowhere.