The Ecology of Aging

Many people look at the aging population as a problem, but author and history professor Theodore Roszak thinks it could result in a wiser and more caring society. 

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Ready or not, like it or not, the modern world is tilting steadily toward gerontocracy. Irresistible trends in family life, medical science, public health, fiscal economics, and political power all run in that direction. In another generation, every industrial society will include more people above the age of fifty than below it, an unprecedented condition. Some nations will take a bit longer getting to that point, but the United States, Western Europe, and Japan are already within sight of senior dominance.

Though environmentalists have yet to register the fact, human longevity has now become a central factor in the demography of industrial society, one of the most rapid and massive changes on the part of any species, let alone the species that purports to be the most dominant on the planet. Acknowledging this transition is as simple as recognizing that elders see life from a very different angle than their children, and so choose different priorities.

Age changes people—if not uniformly, then at least in ways that can be generally characterized. The senior population has, by and large, left careers and childrearing responsibilities behind. The life of the retired encourages introspection and usually the moderation of consumption habits in favor of a closer focus on home and family, and perhaps on the meaning of life. Moreover, seniors in the United States are curious political animals, a strange, perhaps unstable combination of conservatism and liberalism, if not outright populism. Their conservatism stems from their concern for security, but that same concern ties them to large, liberal, entitlements programs. That state of dependency is bound to influence them toward a different allocation of the national wealth than younger citizens might prefer.

There is, in short, an ecology to aging. It may be an ecology that makes wisdom a greater factor in the choices we make. Wisdom is, of course, never guaranteed, but it is at least more likely to appear among those who have a backlog of experience to draw upon and who find themselves less entangled in the shortsighted avarice and competition of the marketplace. Even when seniors band together in a lobbying effort like the AARP, the spirit of the enterprise is not that of a vested interest out to profit to the hilt. Of course seniors defend their claim to entitlements. Social Security and Medicare were promised to them, and, for some, that promise is all they have in life. But nobody involved in that effort is out to make a personal fortune from Social Security payments and medical insurance. They are more likely concerned about not being burdens on their children. The effort is a compassionate and cooperative one that invokes very different values than the predatory behavior that prevails in the market.

That, at least, is the possibility as we examine the rising cost and cultural influence of a longevous population within the ecological context of late industrial society. Identifying aging as an ecological force has significant political implications.

What happens when we place a difficult issue like senior entitlements in an ecological perspective? It may suddenly take on a fresh, more hopeful character. Ecologizing a problem elevates it above the usual adversarial format. It is no longer a matter of bad luck, nor is there anybody who must be blamed. It becomes our common fate, our common project—our chance to learn from nature and serve the planet by living within its limits. When, for example, we discover that major rivers can be subjected to only so much man-made straightening before their floods become unmanageably violent, we realize that we have learned a lesson about the nature of things. We see that it is foolish to curse our fate in such matters, as if we wished that rivers might be designed differently. By the same token, once we discover that it is the fate of an industrial population to age and to alter its values in the direction of its elders, we realize that we are dealing with a pattern of life that cannot be altered by some clever political maneuver or quick budgetary fix.

This is a new way to look at longevity. We begin with demographics, but then we seek to integrate the ideas and ideals, the values and views that people take with them into their senior years. Within such a perspective, matters that are often treated in a purely statistical manner assume a very different force.

Death, for example.

Normally, the death rate appears in demographics as a simple calculation: so many deaths per thousand. That calculation never includes life expectancy as a factor; life expectancy is a separate calculation, often of no interest to demographers. Thus, if a  death rate of 15 to 16 per thousand is given, one cannot tell from the figure who is doing the dying and who is doing the surviving. Is it infants, adolescents, young mothers, old people? But if demographers pay little attention to that question, politicians may give it close scrutiny. In contemporary China, one suspects there is a deliberate effort by the state to shorten the lives of the elderly by inadequate care in order to save the costs and divert them toward development.

The question “who (predominantly) is the population?” clearly makes a difference to the society’s future. To take an extreme case, in medieval Europe at various times, between one-third and one-half of the population lived within a monastic discipline. Life in the monasteries and convents was celibate and abstemious, or at least as much so as human nature allows it to be under the demanding vows the monks and nuns took. If the population ecologists are examining is of that character, they should expect everything they measure about consumption, pollution, and demographic growth to come out very differently than it would for a population dominated by high-living, middle-class, suburban Americans, or for the population of a Latin American society dominated by great insecurity and large families. Neither human beings nor human societies are interchangeable.

Longevity and entitlements do not at first glance look like environmental issues. They seem to be fiscal matters that have nothing to do with wilderness or endangered species. These are, however, issues that engage people directly and within the present generation. Conservatives have, by their panicky approach to the costs of Medicare and Social Security, placed the issue at the top of our political agenda. They may live to regret they have done so. For what they have done is to dramatize the fact that we have reached a stage in our industrial development where, by virtue of the very progress we have so strenuously pursued, the population of the industrial societies is more and more dominated by the needs of the elderly. Like it or not, fewer and fewer decisions about our resources, capital, and energy can be made solely on the basis of what world-beating entrepreneurs, who appeal primarily to the young and middle-aged, find of value. In effect, our society is aging beyond the values that created it.

The virtues we associate with age—prudence, caution, deliberation, security—are the very opposite of those Promethean qualities that built the modern world. But as the demographic pattern of high industrial society shifts toward the senior years, these are the virtues that are bound to gain greater weight in our counsels of state. It has always been the role of elders to raise the great questions of meaning and purpose that loom large as death approaches. As we grow older we naturally become more inward and contemplative, wondering what it has all been for: the effort and the anxiety, the hard pursuit of success and acquisition. You can’t take it with you—as familiar as the phrase may be, it is one of those clichés that happens to be indisputably true.

Now, those who best understand that phrase are coming to play a far greater part in our political affairs, demanding a greater share of our resources, and, in turn, deflecting our single-minded drive for growth, profit, and achievement. This may be one of the reasons why right-wing ideologues have launched a campaign to get entitlements money out of the hands of the government and into the pockets of brokers. The privatization of retirement money would tie senior Americans to the stock market and its compulsive entrepreneurial values. How sad it would be if that should happen! It would turn potential elders into nervous, watchful, money-obsessed gamblers, living as if they might just be able to take it with them. But if elders take the course that wisdom dictates, the values they choose will be more than personal, playing a part in our ecological relations with the planet. If an aging population infuses our culture with values that weaken the drive to dominate and exploit, to conquer and waste, that may be how we at last find our way to what E. F. Schumacher once called “an economics of permanence.”

From the viewpoint of makers and shakers throughout the industrial world, it may seem that the old, the infirm, and the dying are consuming far too much of society’s wealth and dominating far too much of the political dialogue. In the view of the conservative economist Laurance Kotlikoff, a major critic of entitlements, “every dollar the Treasury has to borrow is a dollar denied to the private sector for investment. Over time, that diversion of resources will curb economic growth and leave America poorer.”

Is the longevity revolution, then, a limit to economic growth that none will be able to conjure away, the beginning of a dismal downward spiral? Or is the American entrepreneurial community being as shortsighted as it was when it gambled the future of the automobile industry on a fleeting infatuation with SUVs? They overlook the possibility that longevity may be ushering in a booming health care economy that will prosper vastly in the years ahead. That is the lesson I learned from a lady named Mamie.

I met Mamie at a California retirement community where I was lecturing. She was the first person to come up and shake my hand. She was eighty-four years old, bright-eyed, smiling, and looking not the least bit burdened by her years. “Thank God somebody finally recognized how much I’m worth,” she exclaimed. “What you see is a high-maintenance body. There must be fifty people making a living off of me. Why, I’m a walking medical gold mine.”

She blithely rattled off her medical record: cataract surgery, hearing aid, dentures, quadruple heart bypass, double hip replacement, gall bladder removal, podiatric care, arthritis—I had to admire her sense of humor. It showed that she was glad to be alive, despite the ailments. And I was glad she was alive, too, because, as she went on to tell me, she spends most of her retirement time at volunteer activities with children and shut-ins, valuable community service for no pay. Calculated by the hour at a fair wage, she is probably paying back a lot of her doctors’ bills.

As the Mamies of the world multiply, the United States, along with all the industrial nations, will discover that health care is the highest stage of industrial development. We will become a health care economy with the same spontaneous consensus that led us to span the continent with railroads. Money spent on and money earned from health care are already fast becoming a major economic indicator; in the future they may becomethe major indicator. Caring for Mamie will account for more and more paychecks. Providing the medical miracles, pharmaceuticals, and prosthetic equipment she needs will earn more and more businesses and investors fat profits. Discovering ways to solve the tricky biological problems of aging will become a primary attraction for our best scientific and technological talents.

Lacking an ecological context, conservative economists approach the issue of aging in a state of alarm. They see in the needs of the elderly nothing but fiscal disaster. They are wrong. But in any case, ignoring the demands that age and mortality place upon us is an exercise in fantasy. Is that not what we so often hear just below the surface of the debate on Medicare and Medicaid—a childish complaint that age and death cannot be wished away? If “progress” means lying to ourselves about the nature of human existence, then we must have a new criterion of progress.

Theodore Roszak is a history professor at California State University and author of prominent text The Making of a Counter Culture.