Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


Boom and Doom

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My friend and I sit on the sofa and catch up after the holidays. We are two healthy, 60-something women; we talk about our children and grandchildren, we share our dreams. And then I say: "I think more about death now."

"You, too?" she replies, at first surprised and then reassured. "I think about it all the time."

Not just because we're aging. It's because of the toxic economy. Like many Americans, we are suffering from a strain of financial illness that targets older men and women. We are too old to start over and rebuild a nest egg; we are too young to depend on what is left in our retirement savings to sustain us for the nearly 30 years that statisticians estimate we are likely to live.

As a result, a dark angst spreads among us. My friend tells me about her sister, who went to the doctor for a repeat mammogram because she had a suspicious lump: She was half hoping for a cancer diagnosis so she could say to herself, Finally it will be over.

What a dangerous mind game of desperation! The lump proved benign. The woman has moved on. But the global epidemic of financial illness has prompted a common complaint: I cannot afford to live too long. I cannot afford to live out my normal life expectancy.

This is crazy, given that older people are healthier and more active and have more options than in previous generations. My friend and I ought to be really excited about being longevity pioneers.

But we're not dancing. We're scared.

At the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America a few months ago, the title of a symposium warned: "New Economic Woes Hit Boomers, Seniors Hardest." More recently, a conference at the International Longevity Center in New York explored the "Impact of Economic Crisis on Older Adults."

There is an effective treatment, the experts agree: Keep working, put off "retirement." If unemployed, get a new job.

But that's like telling a patient there is a cure but it's probably out of reach. In the current crisis, there are few jobs for anyone, and even fewer for older people. "We're seeing an increase [in unemployment] at older ages," Richard W. Johnson of the Urban Institute said at the Gerontological Society meeting. Studies also show that older men and women take longer to find a new job and usually face a substantial pay cut.

One reason is ageism. The plight of the older worker was dire even before this meltdown. In 2006, a 62-year-old man in Ohio chose an unorthodox financial plan: He robbed a bank, waited for the police to arrest him, then asked the judge for a three-year prison term (a wish that was granted) because he hadn't been able to find a real job with benefits in several years and he could no longer support himself on the outside.

"There is age discrimination out there," Timothy J. Bowers told the judge, according to news reports.

How much worse is it now that companies are shedding hundreds, thousands of workers at a time? Even the giant Microsoft just last week announced plans to lay off 5,000 people.

We voted for change. President Obama has called for an era of responsibility. So I have a dream: the creation of jobs in a major initiative of public service aimed at people over 50 to build America's social infrastructure. A Peace Corps-type program to harness the talents of older people to upgrade the nation's schools, improve services for the needy, support families raising children and enhance a culture of creativity.

Many excellent programs already exist, such as Experience Corps and Senior Corps, but they make up a relatively small proportion of opportunities. The new initiative alone could not wipe out all financial ills, but it would enable older people to participate in the reconstruction of the economy.

Studies show that most people plan to work at least part time in their retirement years. Many want to "give back" and do community service. And now more than ever, to have dignity in retirement they need a paycheck, even if it's a small, supplemental one to add to their Social Security income.

These men and women belong to the grandparent generation: those who have paid their dues, raised their families, worked all their adult lives. Call them the Grand Generation. They may not have the muscle to build bridges in a public works program. But they have the wisdom from life experience to help others in a public service program.

As C. Eugene Steuerle, vice president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, pointed out at the gerontological symposium: Older men and women are the "largest under-used resource" in the United States.

Mr. President: Remember what your grandparents did for you. Ask now what the Grand Generation can do for the country.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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