Woke up still not dead again today.
The internet said I had passed away.
But if I die and I wasn’t dead to stay
and I woke up not dead again today.
“Still Not Dead” by Willie Nelson
Not only is 84-year-old Willie Nelson not “dead again today,” he is thriving and touring across the country, including a recent stop at Sioux City’s Hard Rock Casino.
But Nelson is not alone. More and more older Americans are starting to realize that age 65 is not a final destination after a long work life, but a transition to new opportunities and experience including continued work and productivity. Much of this, of course, is being driven by the baby-boomer generation which is in the midst of retirement age and the critical decisions that come with it. It is interesting to note that 2016 presidential candidates Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were in their 70s, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
As a member of the baby-boomer generation (DOB: 2/14/56 ... “mama’s little valentine”), I’ve often looked at the claims of the boomers' longer lives with a great deal of skepticism. It seemed to me much of this was about denial. You’ve heard the slogans like “60 is the new 50" and “50 is the new middle age” (if you live to be 100).
But a recent report in the Economist magazine, “The New Old” (July 8, 2017), really dispels a lot of myths about the traditional three-stage life cycle paradigm of education, work and retirement at age 65. The article points out that at least in Western societies there is a new stage of life emerging between the 65-year-old milestone and the onset of old age as it used to be understood - “the new old.”
As country music icon George Jones once said, these folks “don’t need your rockin’ chair." They are much more active and healthy than previous generations of the same age.
According to the report, today’s 65-year-olds are in much better shape then their grandparents were at the same age. In America today, a 70-year old man has a 2 percent chance of dying within a year; in 1940, that projection would have been at just age 56. The average 65-year-old in the “rich” world (as the Economist calls it) can now expect to live for another 20 years, 10 of them free of disability.
And, according to the report, this “new old” generation will be a major economic force. In America, the 50-plus age group will account for 70 percent of disposable income, according to market researcher Nielson. The baby boomers will clearly have more money to spend than any previous generation. And many will continue to work far past traditional retirement age out of necessity or preference.
The report is good news in many ways for the long-term economy since, based on the traditional 65-year-old retirement paradigm and nosediving birth rates, it was considered conventional wisdom that too few younger Americans would be supporting too many retirees.
But the news isn’t all rosy. According to the Economist report, roughly 40 percent of Americans approach retirement with no savings at all. And the benefits of being a part of the “new old” depend directly on your personal wealth and education level. Obviously, there are many personal factors that play a huge role in length and quality of life such as smoking, obesity, exercise, diet and drug/alcohol consumption.
Another critical factor is access to health care. According to Fabrice Murtin from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) a consortium of 30 developed nations, the best way to level the playing field is to invest in public health and provide high-quality education for everyone. In countries such as Canada and Sweden that have this emphasis, the gap in life expectancy between the most- and least-educated people is much narrower than in America.
The report should be a wake-up call for all nations to challenge the traditional paragon of education, work and retirement at age 65. It should be a challenge to business to capture the market for the “new old.” It should be a challenge to the financial industry to rethink retirement schemes that plan for shorter life spans, and especially a challenge to the "new old" to make the most out of these additional years of life not enjoyed by previous generations.
Next week: Linda Holub
A Sioux City resident and local attorney, Al Sturgeon is a former Democratic state representative and senator. He is the father of six children.