Our Idea Of “Too Old” Must Change
John de Chastelain, the acclaimed general and diplomat, said something enormously important last week when he responded to rumours that he would be the next governor general. It’s not on, said de Chastelain, who will be 73 in July. He’s too old. “It would be appropriate to have someone younger and perhaps with better qualifications than mine,” de Chastelain told the Globe and Mail.
Discount that bit about qualifications. The accomplishments expected of a governor general have been declining for a generation and de Chastelain’s résumé towers over that of any recent occupant of Rideau Hall. But he is indeed almost 73. And he is far from alone in thinking that makes him too old.
Which is a problem for all of us. A big problem.
No, this is not going to turn into a thunderous denunciation of the horror that is “ageism.” My heart wouldn’t be in it. As someone born in the trough following the baby boom, a little more “ageism” could do wonders for my career prospects. Go ahead and arbitrarily dismiss older people, I say. Clear out the baby boomers. Put them all out to pasture. That would suit my self-interest nicely.
For a few more years, anyway. But then things would take a nasty turn … for my generation and others.
Anyone who has read a newspaper in the last decade knows about “population aging.” Thanks to high and rising longevity, fertility rates in the cellar, and the advancing years of the baby boom cohort, the age of the average person in Canada and other developed countries is going up rapidly.
According to Statistics Canada’s latest demographic projections, the number of seniors is expected to more than double between 2009 and 2036, growing from 4.7 million to between 9.9 and 10.9 million. Seniors’ proportion of the population will almost double, rising from 14 per cent today to between 23 and 25 per cent in 2036.
For the first time in history, seniors will outnumber children. For economists, the number that really matters is the ratio between people of working age and those who depend on them, namely kids and retirees. The lower the ratio, the greater the burden on workers and economies. Thanks to low fertility rates, the ratio of workers to kids is high and isn’t likely to change. But the story with retirees is very different. In 2005, the retiree population was 20 per cent of the size of the working-age population. Over the next several decades, it will become 40 per cent. By mid-century, there may only be two workers per retiree.
What that shift means for the average person is simple. Your taxes will go through the roof and the social programs you value, such as health care, will be slashed. It has to happen. Math will not be denied. But math can be modified. One way we can ease the pain of population aging is to keep older people in the work force longer.
For those of us raised on dreams of “Freedom 55,” sailboats and travelling the world, that won’t sound terribly enticing. But the reality of retirement isn’t nearly so wonderful as advertisers make it seem. And staying in the work force longer isn’t so awful. For most, it means maintaining a sense of connection, capability and purpose that may otherwise be lost. It’s also good for the savings account, which improves retirement when it does come.
A little historical perspective should also be borne in mind. For decades, the effective age of retirement steadily dropped. This wasn’t just a luxury we could afford with rising prosperity. It was a deliberate policy intended to get older workers out faster in order to make room for the swollen ranks of young workers. The situation is very different today, so pushing the retirement age back up only makes sense.
And remember that the very concept of retirement was essentially invented when Bismarck’s Germany created an old-age security system in 1889. Payments kicked in at age 70 — at a time when life expectancy was much less than 50 and the average septuagenarian was afflicted by disease and disability. Today, life expectancy has topped 80 and seniors are far healthier and more capable than ever. Not that some weren’t in the past: Bismarck was 74 when he created old-age security and a few years later Britain’s legendary William Gladstone became prime minister for the fourth time. He was 82.
So, is 73 too old for a governor general to do a fine job at Rideau Hall? Should a younger person automatically be preferred? With all due respect to Gen. de Chastelain, that is nonsense.
But that nonsense is ingrained in our culture. Thanks largely to the emergence of the baby boom generation in the 1960s, we are obsessed with youth. We idealize it. We give it automatic preference. The qualities of youth are valued above the experience and judgment that comes with age and so, where other cultures are respectful of “elders” and value their counsel, we are dismissive of “old people” and wish that they would shut up.
Baby boomers left youth behind long ago but the cult of youth they inspired lives on. Have a look at last week’s New Yorker, where an ad placed by this country’s federal government touts the strength of the Canadian economy: Above a list of serious and important statistics, five corporate types huddle around a boardroom table, poring over blueprints. Not one looks older than 30.
A demographic shift is coming. That much is inevitable. Much less certain is whether we will make the cultural shift the demographic shift demands.