By Mark Miller
CHICAGO, Feb. 18 America is aging, and it's
supposed to be a big downer. Pensions are crushing government
budgets, Social Security is in trouble and Medicare costs are
going through the roof.
But someone must be putting Prozac in our water supply,
because we don't seem to be fretting. A recent Pew Research
Center study of attitudes about aging in 21 countries finds
Americans far less worried about the aging trend than others.
Just 26 percent say aging is a problem in our country, compared
with 43 percent of the British, 55 percent of Germans, 67
percent of Chinese and 87 percent of Japanese.
Pew chalks it up to America's relatively youthful
demographics. Although 21 percent of us will be over 65 by 2050,
up from 13 percent in 2010, our median age will still be five
years younger than that of the rest of the world. That's mainly
because we have higher rates of immigration, and immigrants tend
to be young. By contrast, Japan, China, South Korea and many
European countries will have much larger aging populations
dependent on shrinking workforces in the years ahead, Pew notes.
Our blase attitude toward aging is striking in light of
politically motivated efforts to whip up a frenzy on the topic.
Proponents of cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits warn
that these programs will eat our economy alive if we don't curb
them. Some have even tried to pit generations against one
another by trying to make the case that the old literally are
stealing from the young. We heard this in the 2012 Republican
primaries from Texas Governor Rick Perry, who infamously
described Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" that takes from
the young to pay benefits to the old.
The generational arguments get a more serious hearing in
some public policy circles, notably in an annual report from the
Urban Institute that tracks the declining share of federal
spending on children. The report's most recent edition, issued
last September, notes that federal spending on kids is on track
to fall from 2.2 percent to 1.8 percent of gross domestic
product from 2012 to 2023, while spending on spending on Social
Security, Medicare and Medicaid will rise from 9 percent to 10.4
percent of GDP.
The comparison is at least partially one of apples to
oranges. Social Security benefits are paid out of worker
contributions made over their lifetimes, like any other pension
system - and part of Medicare's spending also is self-funded.
What's more, a portion of Social Security and Medicare benefits
go to young people through survivor and disability payments -
and the vast majority of Medicaid dollars are spent on
low-income women and their children.
The federal GDP trend data also doesn't reflect spending on
kids at the state and local level, where most education dollars
are spent. And the numbers don't capture private spending.
"People vastly overestimate how much money goes from the
young to older people," says Ted Fishman, author of "Shock of
Gray," a 2010 book about the global economics of aging. "They
tend to look at it only in terms of the public sphere, but in
the private sphere the dollars flow overwhelmingly in the other
direction - just look at what grandparents spend on
grandchildren, or what parents spend on college tuition."
In his book, Fishman explains how the aging of the world's
population will drive globalization and immigration patterns in
the years ahead, and will determine the economic destiny of
nations. He thinks Asians' worries about aging are justified.
"The countries that worry are under-pensioned - China has no
real pension system." he says. "And support of the elderly by
families there is falling because of the country's rapid
modernization. "Young Chinese are migrating from rural
communities to urban areas that are a great distance from their
families, and the bonds get tenuous."
But - absent a Prozac conspiracy theory - what is making
Americans so much more optimistic about our gray transition?
Fishman thinks ignorance may be a factor. "We think blithely
about a lot of things that the rest of the world is more
realistic about - and it might just reflect our low level of
But the Pew findings might just reflect accurate American
instincts about what it will take to care for our aging society.
"We're pretty good at muddling through," Fishman says. "We are
very good at supporting each other and taking care of family
members - our familial supports are very strong."
Family members do provide the majority of long-term care
services, reports AARP, and 68 percent of Americans told the
University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center last
year that they believed they could rely on family members for
help. That could change in the years ahead; AARP research
projects that the ratio of available caregivers to those in need
will shift sharply by 2050 as the country ages. That will put
new pressures on an already strained system of institutional
Healthcare costs - separate of long-term care - also are
worth worrying about. The rapid escalation in healthcare
inflation in the United States has moderated in the past few
years: After rising anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent
annually from 2000 to 2007, the national health expenditure data
tracked by the federal government showed growth of just 3.9
percent annually from 2009 to 2011. But few experts are
convinced those numbers translate into a sustainable long-term
trend - and Medicare spending will mirror the broader healthcare
There will be other "gray" challenges. Social Security
already is on track to replace less income in the years ahead
because of reforms made in 1983, and its finances will need a
fix if we're to avoid more cuts starting in 2033.
Our task, Fishman says, is to consider increasing longevity
as a positive development, and an opportunity.
"We should acknowledge the great gift of getting older -
fear shouldn't be our dominant emotion about this change," he
said. "We should be optimistic about it, but we also need to be
willing to do our job as citizens and be smart about it. That
means taking better care of our finances - working longer,
staying engaged with our families and taking better care of our
"But getting more years of life is the best thing that has
ever happened to humankind."