Facing Our Future: The Age Driven Dilemma in Western Society.

Let so many of my contemporaries who are past 55, I am finding harder and harder to find interesting work. The next generation of managers – the folks in their 30s, 40s and even 50s, are simply not comfortable working with us. As a result, they tend not to hire us as employees or engage us as contractors / consultants.

The “freedom 55 myth” that pervades our societies makes that reality for many members of my generation even worse. These marketing myths suit the pension plan industry and the banks but do not really mirror social reality. Surveys have shown that many folks do not have well crafted or stable pension plans. Some of us simply had careers that meant we did not stay with one firm long enough. Others saved and invested in the stock market, long considered a haven for retirement saving. The stock market’s main purpose used to be raising capital for business enterprise. Today, speculative and computer algorithm based short term profit taking dominate its dynamics more and more. Retirement oriented investments are often not stable enough or generate enough steady return to provide adequate income for retirement time periods that get ever longer. Life expectancy is steadily increasing. More and more people are staying healthy for longer periods. Modern medicine now leads to recovery for things that used to mean death.

Retirement income needs are increasing. The actuarial pool model that underlies most pension plans – many people contributing over a long period of employment but not all of them living for a long retirement periods to take out their benefits – is being progressively undermined by the reality of our social dynamics

Many of the folks who expect stable pensions will be rudely impacted in the next 1 to 30 years as their pension plans struggle with demographically based declining contributions at the same time as more people live to expect benefits for longer periods of time. Many apparently stable pension plans will simply collapse under these pressures.

Income from a pension plan is not my problem. I don’t have a comfortable pension plan that is managed by someone else. I chose to invest in entrepreneurial ventures in my late forties and fifties. I did not succeed in them as I had hoped. So generating income in some way will always be part of my life.

But then I never expected to retire either. I always wanted to continue working as long as I had the health to do so. I seem to have lucked out in my genetic endowment. Three of my four grandparents lived long productive, socially active lives into their eighties and nineties. More and more, the evidence indicates that genes combined with exercise, diet care moderation and modern medicine increase the probability that I, and many others, will, live longer than most folks in previous generations. If I want to work, I am likely to healthy enough to be able to do so.

My model of my life’s progression, and the continuing place of work in it, was different from the one inherent in the “freedom 55 myth”. I experience work as providing me with dignity, a place for being creative, an environment in which I continuously learned continuously and a sense of personal joy in who I was professionally. It was not a “grind” from which I needed freedom

So, it is with some surprise that I am facing my current situation – a social climate that does not support many of my contemporaries and myself in our desire (and our need to) work actively in the later stages of our lives.

The shared employment models common in our societies have not kept up with this growing social reality. Jobs are still seen as part of a career leading to retirement. Instead, we need to start thinking of them being a life long need. The numbers of hours may decrease with the age, but not the need to emotionally engage in meaningful and income generating work.

Corporations still staff their human resource executive posts with individuals who hold the “freedom 66 myth”. They fill their recruitment teams with younger people who don’t really have a sense of the new social reality faced by a large number of people in their 60s and beyond.

Not all of these older folks find fulfillment in travel or babysitting grand kids or going to the community center. They describe themselves as “young minded” in a way that is new in our societies. For many, their sense of personal identity is strongly connected to making a valued contribution to the society they live in through some level of meaningful work. In addition, they will need the income generated to live with dignity and a sense of self resourcefulness.

Increasingly, such folks will become more important in the voting dynamics of our modern democracies. Unfortunately, our politicians are out of touch with much of this. Their own pensions plans are among the best sheltered in our societies. But as keepers of the public purse, they are beginning to panic about the growing strain this age driven change places on our collective social finances. So, we hear then talking about limiting public pension benefits, supporting the change corporate pension plans from defined benefit to earned value and so forth. They do all this while blindly assuming that their own pensions will be inviolate in the hands of future politicians.

Today’s politicians do not seem to understand the needed deeper social changes that are required to cope with these age drive societal dynamics. These changes need to start with an update in our shared model of what constitutes a productive life in our society and how this relates to employment.This change will require a long period of sustained dialogue at all levels of our societies, public, private and individual.

Politicians are more reactive than proactive. Their short term orientation, driven by the next to win the next election, blinds them to longer term social dynamics. They are not leading, or even just facilitating, the dialogue needed to create the “new solutions” – solutions with involve some fundamental changes in the shared way that we think about the age related progression of our lives in our societies.

Neither are the “associations” of older people in our societies providing productive leadership. They are still largely oriented to lobbying current politicians to get the “benefits” of being older – stable, inflation protected pensions, government paid medical benefits, and stable social conditions in which they enjoy traditional view of retirement – as a time to “stop” the grind of work and travel and relax. But this will change.

The crisis faced by the part of the older generation who today do not have the pensions they need to live with dignity will expand as more and more pension plans cannot cope with financial demands placed on them. When that happens, a new political dynamic will emerge in our society – that of the older voter angry at the failure of social contracts they felt they could count on. The time to start addressing this dynamic, and making it a positive one, is now. If we do not start and sustain the societal dialogues needed to make changes in our current models of retirement and employment, we as a society risk an angry backlash by older people. That is not a good prospect in democracies in which older people’s share of the popular vote is increasing.

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