Sunday, September 4, 2011

Extreme Longevity

Damien: On a listserv of gerontology experts dedicated to studying extreme longevity (super-centenarians in particular, those who survive past the age of 110), this point was recently made:

In 1965, there are 5+ workers for every retiree. Today, there are 3.3
workers for every retiree.

The number of workers per retiree will drastically fall once all baby
boomers have retired. So, if we want a society in which longevity
increases and we want to maintain the same standard of living, then it
logically follows that a fundamental shift will need to happen.

This outcome, though, is obviously dependent on many other factors as well. For a start, some countries (Australia, for example) don't treat the aged pension as a right but as a safety net, like insurance, so if you're wealthy enough not to absolutely need it, you don't get it. That seems equable enough to me (I’m ineligible for an Aussie pension myself), but I can hear most people in the USA squealing with indignation if this fix were suggested. “We paid for it, and we want our entitlement!” Yes, true enough—but then you pay for your health insurance, too, and if you’re lucky enough not to get ill your contribution is shared among the less fortunate. And if you do fall sick, or suffer a bad accident, you’re surely glad you paid all those years.

In any event, people are living longer, way beyond the five or six years after retirement that used to be the norm when Social Security was introduced. But simply raising the age of retirement year after year, as healthy lifespan is increased by medical intervention, isn’t going to help, even though people will remain fit for longer. People can't compete with machines, especially smart machines. I discussed this impending crunch years ago in my book The Spike.

Barbara: The problem of fewer young workers to support a growing mass of old people implies that there is too much work to be done and not enough people to do the work. George Friedman addresses this in The Next Hundred Years, pointing out that this is already a problem in some European countries, such as Germany.  Thomas Bock was at my nephew’s wedding about a month ago and talked of research he and his students are doing on holistic optimization of buildings. This got me thinking about how nice it would be if my home could take care of cleaning itself, cleaning me, obtaining and preparing food, dispensing my medications. Based on my observations while taking care of my mother, my impression is that one of the main reasons old people end up in nursing homes is that they can’t handle some of the more important aspects of life, such as cleaning the house, cooking meals, caring for clothing, driving to the store for groceries. Not so very long ago, that list might have included growing or hunting food.

For most people, the cost of hiring a housekeeper, cook, nurse, driver, etc. is prohibitively expensive. Despite the relatively high unemployment numbers, there is a shortage of people willing to do housework at affordable rates. There are “undocumented” people who would love to have the jobs, but it’s a criminal offence to hire them (Friedman writes that in a few years, the U.S. will be begging people from Mexico to come here and work). So the only reasonable choice for most people is to go to a nursing home or assisted living facility.

If old people could retrofit their homes, or move to new apartments that do the cooking, cleaning, and shopping for them, then some of the people now working in nursing or assisted living homes would be out of work. Which is the second potential problem Damien mentioned: fewer jobs.

The first problem, fewer young people to support a growing population of old people, could be solved by machines to do most of the work. But this leads to the second problem: if machines do most of the work, there aren’t any jobs to go around. Note that Damien is not talking about stupid machines like vacuum cleaners that have to be pushed around by humans, or even robotic vacuum cleaners that run themselves and tuck themselves away out of sight when they’re done. He’s talking about machines that can practice law, cut your hair in the exact style you want, produce a perfect steak from an assortment of chemicals, compose music that will precisely fit your mood.

In a world where no one has a job (as we understand the concept), the problem of too few young people for each old person disappears. Which is not to say that too many old people would be a problem in the first place if the old people were healthy and able to work, rather than falling apart.

Most of the people I know run their own businesses and enjoy going to work each day. Many of them do not want to retire. They might have an “exit strategy” for the business they’re running right now, but in most cases, the last thing they plan to do is sit around letting young people support them. No, they want to start another business, or learn new skills.

President Obama will address the public on September 8 to talk about creating jobs. This is understandable, given the prevalent belief that a person must have a routine job, working for someone else or some large organization, in order to make a living. I used to think the same thing when I was young. In my mid-20s, when I was “between jobs,” fretting about being unemployed, my then-boyfriend said (not an exact quote, but this is the way I remember it), “You don’t need a job. You need a way to earn money. That’s two different things. There are ways to earn money other than getting a job.”

He listed a few of the possibilities: I had enough stuff lying around to open a second-hand shop; I had a degree in mathematics, so I could tutor students who were having trouble with math. I don’t remember any of his other suggestions, and I never ended up doing any of the things he suggested. But his confident statement that I did not need a job in order to earn money turned on a little light bulb in my mind and has made all the difference in my life. Thank you, Kim Marshall.

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