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Getting savvy to seniority

The new reality of aging offers fresh opportunities to older people, as well as increasing the benefits they bring to economic growth. by Bloomberg | July 3, 2022 at 2:15 a.m.

Please allow me to introduce myself

I'm a man of wealth and taste

I've been around for long, long years

Stole many a man's soul and faith

So if you meet me

Have some courtesy

Have some sympathy,

and some taste

Use all your well-learned politnesse

Or I'll lay your soul to waste ...

"Sympathy for the Devil,"

with lyrics by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

On June 25, 80-year-old Paul McCartney headlined Glastonbury, the UK's premier live music festival. On the same night in Hyde Park, the Rolling Stones, fronted by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, both 78, strutted their stuff. Other touring rockers include Bruce Springsteen (72), Elton John (75) and Bob Dylan (81), who is on an optimistically conceived "never ending tour."

This refusal to fade away is not confined to wrinkly rockers. The best new book I've read recently is "Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy" by 99-year-old Henry Kissinger. Rupert Murdoch is back on the marriage market at 91, and Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping to make a political comeback at 72.

Inspirational older women include Iris Apfel, 100, designer of jewelry and clothing, as well as an interior designer who has consulted for nine presidents at the White House.

Jane Fonda, 84--actress, activist, and former fashion model--is the recipient of myriad accolades including two Academy Awards, two British Academy Film Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, and a Primetime Emmy Award.

Martha Stewart, 80, successful businesswoman, writer, and television personality, is the founder of diversified media and merchandising company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second female justice in United States history, was nominated in 1993 at the age of 60. She died in 2020 at the age of 87.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, 94, an advocate for safe, healthy and enjoyable sex, didn't become known for her down-to-earth advice until she reached her mid-50s, and she continues to operate a private practice in sex therapy.

Alice Waters, 78, founder of Chez Panisse, one of the most renowned restaurants in the United States, is the first woman to win the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in America award.

These days more and more older people are not so much raging against the dying of the light as continuing with business as usual well into what used to be regarded as the twilight years.

Our youth-obsessed culture has always underestimated the enduring power of older people. Ray Kroc was in his 50s when he began building the McDonald's franchise system, while Col. Harland Sanders was 62 when he franchised the formula for Kentucky Fried Chicken.

C.M. "Dad" Joiner, a legendary Texas wildcatter, didn't hit the big one until he was 70, when he sank his last few dollars into a makeshift drilling rig. George Mitchell didn't crack the secret of fracking--an innovation that has revolutionized the world's energy industry--until he was in his 80s. A study of new U.S. firms conducted by the Kauffman Foundation discovered the highest rate of entrepreneurial activity among 55- to 64-year-olds and the lowest rate among 20- to 30-year-olds.

This obsession is particularly silly now that 80 is the new 40 (or in McCartney's case, 30). Over the past 200 years, life expectancy has increased at a steady rate of more than two years every decade. (There is depressing evidence that life expectancy is shrinking for poor men in the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly in post-industrial areas, but that is still an exception to the overall trend.)

A child born in the West today has a more than 50 percent chance of living to be over 105. Queen Elizabeth, who is 96, sends a message of congratulation to every Briton who reaches the age of 100. A decade ago, she had one assistant to help her with this happy task. Now she has seven.

Many people worry that a long old age means decades of mental fog or physical frailty. What about Alzheimer's? Or brittle bone syndrome? Yet most people are living healthier lives as well as longer ones.

In the industrial era, people were worn out by heavy manual labor (hence all those ailments such as miner's cough and housemaid's knee). Today most of us spend our working lives sitting in front of computers, with the Urban Institute calculating that almost 50 percent of American jobs make almost no physical demands on workers whatsoever.

There are plenty of drugs to slow the passage of time or ease the pain of disintegration. Morbidity problems are being compressed into a shorter period just before the grim reaper wields his scythe. In the United States, for example, the proportion of 85- to 89-year-olds who are classified as disabled fell from 22 percent to 12 percent. Diabetes, cirrhosis, arthritis? All are starting later in life.

The new reality of aging confronts the world with one of its greatest challenges, and one of its greatest opportunities. The challenge is that we will all be bankrupted by the ever-rising cost of pensions.

The old-age dependency ratio--the number of people of retirement age as a percentage of those of employment age--is set at least to double in the next few decades, with Japan leading the way and other rich countries following. (In 1960, Japan had 10 workers for every pensioner. By 2050, it will have seven workers for every pensioner).

The most humane way to deal with this problem is to raise the retirement age along with life expectancy in order to increase the number of years that you pay into the system and reduce the number of years that you draw money out.

When Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of Germany, introduced a retirement age of 70 in 1889, the average Pomeranian peasant would be lucky to live another two years.

Now, European retirees regularly live two decades beyond retirement, enjoying a life of golf, cards, hiking and theater-going (I recently went to see a production of Aaron Sorkin's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in the West End and was struck by the fact that the audience consisted entirely of elderly white people).

Yet so far only a few countries, mainly in northern Europe, have embraced fiscal responsibility. Norway has raised its retirement age to 67, despite its enormous wealth, and will continue to push it upwards.

But southern European countries still think that the siesta years should start at 60. The supposedly welfare-averse United States has a retirement age of 66 and, thanks to the Republicans' opposition to raising taxes or the Democrats' refusal to cut entitlements, a pension system that is headed towards bankruptcy.

This patchy arrangement is true of companies as well as countries. A few are rising to the challenge. Professional service firms allow older employees to work four days a week. Retailers have discovered the virtues of older workers, with Walmart Inc. in the U.S. and Asda and B&Q in the UK being particularly innovative in producing "geronto-friendly" policies such as flexible working arrangements.

BMW introduced a production line staffed exclusively by older workers. At first "the pensioner's line" was less productive, but with a few technical changes--new chairs, comfier shoes, magnifying lenses--the difference was removed.

But many companies remain as benighted as southern European politicians. They link seniority to salary and position, then weed out workers in their 50s and 60s because they're too expensive or don't fit into the managerial grid. And they allow millions of dollars of institutional experience to walk out of the door because they don't debrief exiting employees.

One of the secrets of economic growth is that rich countries have always had new sources of labor to draw on. There were agricultural workers who could be brought in from the countryside (in the 19th century more than 90 percent of the population worked on the land). There were immigrants who could be brought in from poorer countries (this was a particular boon for the United States). There were women who boosted war production in the 1940s, and then flooded into the professions from the 1960s onwards.

But with all these sources already tapped (like women) or controversial (like immigrants), rich countries need to discover new sources of under-utilized labor.

One obvious source is less well-off communities whose talents are still under-recognized.

But another is older workers who are being eased out of the workforce by corporate shortsightedness or who are bribed into retirement by poorly designed pension systems.

Paul and Mick helped to lead a youth rebellion in the 1960s that forced society to pay more attention to the creative energies of the young. Let's hope that they can lead a senior rebellion in the 2020s that will change society's benighted attitudes toward the old.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

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