Tuesday, November 30, 2004

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."--Thoreau

Molly Ivins points me in the direction of a new trend: people outliving the terms of their labor contracts. Apparently, per the WSJ, some companies want to limit pension benefits to the "lifetime" of the labor contract, not the "lifetime" of the employee. As cold-hearted as this clearly is, it points to a problem in American life, one we have never faced before, and so don't seem to be recognizing as more important and fundamental than almost any other:

People are living longer than ever before.

This is neither a surprise, nor as elementary as it may first appear. One of the fundamentals of society was that it changed, however slowly, as the elderly died off and the young took positions of responsibility. But in politics, at least, the elderly tend to be very conservative, and tend to vote in larger numbers. That affects politics very directly.

But there's also the spiritual, or psychological, if you prefer, aspect to this. What do we do with all these people? The average age in America is going up, rapidly. I know individuals who have survived multiple heart attacks and heart surgeries. Years ago, they would have been long dead. Now they are living into their 70s, 80s, 90s. This is an economic problem, too. When do we force them "out of the way" to make way for younger workers? Should we force them? Should we even encourage their retirement?

There are other effects, as well. This is the unacknowledged issue that will be at the root of most others. The elderly who don't relinguish control to the young; the elderly who demand resources from the society; the elderly who deserve our respect and care; the elderly who have much to teach us, if we will learn. The elderly simply as fellow human beings. But we have to recognize this fact: this is not a demographic "bulge" in the python. This is a fundamentally changed situation. This is, truly, unlike anything we have ever seen in human history. How does our economy, our political structure, our culture, respond? And how are our economy, our political structure, our culture, affected by this?