Eighty as the new 60. Sixty as the new 40. There’s truth to the clichés (as there usually is). From Barbara Walters’s presumed facelifts to Willie Nelson’s illegal smoke, growing old isn’t what it was. For one thing, it lasts a lot longer, which means that the ranks of seniors will continue to swell. Baby boomers are fast becoming elderly boomers, a demographic change that will shape the nation’s society—and its economy—for decades to come.
This edition of The Next Economy, a quarterly supplement produced jointly by The Atlantic and National Journal, explores the effects of this demographic certainty. Will baby boomers and their entitlements crush their children by weighing them down with debt? Will boomers put off retirement and take up jobs that younger folks want, touching off generational warfare? Scariest, was Malthus right? If Americans live longer and longer—for an individual, there’s no happier news—will society inevitably outrun its resources?
The fashionable answer to such questions is the ugly one. But even in these days of economic unease, the glass-half-empty rejoinder isn’t always correct. In the cover story, Paul Starobin finds that Americans’ increasing longevity can prove beneficial to society as a whole, adding to its wealth, if—if older Americans can stay healthy, and if the federal government can succeed in defusing the fiscal threats. Even better, longevity promises additional years of health and vigor, which is why Marc Freedman expects more Americans in midlife to launch fulfilling “encore” careers (nearly one-tenth of them have already done so).
Still, old age isn’t for sissies. Saving for retirement, which used to be straightforward, has become a minefield of contingencies, as Russell Pearlman outlines in disturbing detail. The end of life, as Jonathan Rauch describes, is the hardest of all. Should we take extraordinary steps—at extraordinary cost—to fend off death for a few extra months? People who are given an informed choice often decide that less is more.
Nothing about getting old is simple. Whether it’s building a nest egg or surviving long enough to spend it—check out Alina Tugend’s advice for achieving longevity—most of it is on you. Not fun. To misquote Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being gray. But it still beats the alternative.
This article appears in the December 14, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.