Aging Society Presents Dilemma

You’ve gotta hand it to Tom Watson. He came pretty close on July 19 to capturing the 2009 British Open at age 59 which is downright ancient for a golfer. Watson almost won it outright, ended up tied at the finish, and then fell apart in the playoff, losing to Stewart Cink. It was Cink’s first big win.


It’s hard not to feel sorry for Watson but then again, he’s done good in his life so we can dispense with the tears.  He has had a career that most people could only dream of. It would have been nice for him to win the Open, but it was just as nice to see a new face in the winner’s circle.


And to watch Watson do badly in the playoff really does prove the old adage that age is only a number… until you compare it to a smaller number. Watson looked like he simply ran out of gas like Grandpa after a morning at the zoo with the grandkids.


In Portland, Oregon, on the same day of Watson’s Waterloo, 81-year-old Hershel McGriff qualified for a NASCAR West series stock car race, while 80-year-old Chris ‘The Greek’ Karamesines recently qualified for an NHRA Top Fuel drag racing event. During the 2009 season to date, Mark Martin, the Old Man and the Iron Man of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing at age 50, has won three events against many drivers half his age and less.


What does all this mean?


It represents the rethinking of the whole concept of aging in the Era of Oil. Because the discovery and use of oil has given us in the developed nations the huge economic rocket boost that has produced the technological advances to keep us alive longer, and younger for more and more years. Meanwhile much of the world still has a maximum lifespan of 45 years, which was the American life expectancy just 100 years ago before the Era of Oil had kicked into high gear.


So what happens to us as we age?


That is an interesting question. It has completely changed. Used to be that you worked your whole life, maybe puttered around for a few years when there was a little spark left, and then you died. Today millions work until 55 or 60 or 65, then play and travel and enjoy life for ten or twenty or thirty years, pumped up on Viagra, thinking 20 years younger that their actual age, living off the great wealth that our prosperous capitalist society has produced, and then passing into eternity only very reluctantly, often kicking and screaming with every stop pulled to give a few more months of precious life.


Yes, it is wonderful to see the Centenarians of America growing in number, those living to be 100 years old, a group that is expanding with every passing year. Because we are now in a new mindset. Once one person sees another living longer and better, he gets it in his mind that that is his right too. And so we think about living longer. And then we do. After all, we can overcome anything except death.


It is a double-edged sword, however. As we age we require more and more health care. This is driving up health costs for younger people and for society at large. As non-producing people live longer and longer, it puts a bigger burden on producing people. It is a quandary that is affecting our economy in ways never imagined just 50 years ago, and is one of the most significant factors in our health-care debate.


When the Social Security system was introduced in 1937, the “retirement” age of 65 was longer than the average lifespan. Today, the average lifespan is 13 years longer than the retirement age, which remains 65.


It is interesting to think that people are alive today who saw the first Model T roam the streets. That they grew up in an era without widespread air travel and electricity and, of course, no computers. What is fascinating is that we adapt ourselves so well. It is amusing to tell our kids that we grew up in the 1950s when you had to talk to an operator to call long-distance and that the big bakelite phones had rotary dials, so ‘square’ in the age of the wafer-sized cell phone and text messaging.


When I was growing up there was a couple up the street we thought of as “old”. Then 20 years later, they were still around, doing great and looking pretty much the same. They must have been really old by then! Now I figure that they were in their 60s when I was growing up, an age that I and my compatriots now are approaching. And we sure don’t see ourselves as being “old”.


When I was a kid, we called our parents “the old fossils” and they were amused by that. My mom drove a 1953 fastback Plymouth and signaled with her arm out the window. The car had a tiny straight-6 engine and big oval pedals for the column-mounted manual transmission and brakes. Our family “station wagon” was a grey and red ’56 Dodge, and then a blue two-tone Ford.


Station wagon? Two-tone paint jobs? Whoever heard of those? And what were ‘whitewall’ tires, anyway?!


How about George HW Bush jumping out of an airplane for his 85th birthday? Is that not a sign of the times? Or John Glenn going into space at age 77. Awesome.


There is an old saying that throughout most of history life was brutal and short, that most of man’s existence was simply a struggle to survive into his 40s or 50s, and that an old man in his 80s was a freak of nature. Still there were a few old folks, rare as they were.


Today, however, we are going the other way. Our culture is morphing into an Elder World with much of our economy designed around those in advanced years. It is wonderful that Grandpa and Grandma can enjoy their grandchildren and even their great-grandchildren for more and more years but it is presenting us with a quandary. Someday, if we continue down this path with very low birth rates thrown in, we are going to see the reverse of what we have seen throughout history. There will be lots of very old people and fewer and fewer young people to support them and take care of them. And that is going to be the most interesting situation of all.


Please visit my website at www.nikitas3.com for more. You can print out for free my book, Right Is Right, which explains why only conservatism can maintain our freedom and prosperity.