Isn't it about time we reimagined what being old is? We can start with who we call "elderly," and maybe we could stop assuming that every 66-year-old is going to retire the very moment they reached full retirement age.
This week's once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging troubled me for a number of reasons, prime among them was about how the conversation seemed to skirt the biggest issue facing us: how to change our culture so that "old age" is a time of productivity and activity instead of being presumed dead-while-still-breathing. Instead of seizing the opportunity to change how the nation sees and regards aging, the WHCOA caused me agita for a number of reasons.
1. They couldn't even fund the damn thing.
Seriously? 10,000 boomers a day turning 65, and Congress couldn't come up with the dough? What message should boomers take away from that? The President asked for $3 million in his 2015 fiscal year budget for the conference and didn't get a nickel from the congressional piggybank. As noted by Bob Rosenblatt, editor of HelpWithAging.com, this meant that a couple of thousand "politically savvy, enthusiastic and often argumentative older people" stayed home. They were not able to come to DC to tell Congress and the President what to do about concerns of the aging population. "No demonstrations on or off the conference floor, no press conferences by pleased or disgruntled delegates," wrote Rosenblatt. Instead, people were told to hold Watch Parties and tweet their thoughts.
How big a deal is this? Well, let's just say that when the first White House conference on Aging was held in 1961, it generated tremendous political momentum for President Kennedy's proposal to provide health care for every American over age 65. The Kennedy proposal became the Medicare plan passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson in 1965. Imagine what could have been accomplished if delegates could have been there this week.
2. Longevity has changed everything and it's not the same-old, same-old anymore.
Back a few generations ago, it made sense for a WHCOA to include lots of talk about nursing home care and the whatnot. Today? We needed to hear more on how our increasing longevity is turning aging upside down and how society needs to adjust to it. There are more centenarians than ever and not all of them are in nursing homes. If you live to be 95 or 100, do you really want a 40-year retirement? People want to be able to contribute more -- and for longer. Plus they want to work longer to ensure they have enough money to retire. As Michael Hodin, executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, put it, "Let's also stop assuming that what we created in the 20th century can work today."
3. Age discrimination was the elephant in the room that nobody talked about.
Come on people! If you are over 50 and trying to find a new job, you know what I'm talking about. In what has got to be the most-prevalent discrimination crime that goes unaddressed, companies boldly advertise that they want to hire someone "young" or someone who is a "digital native." Yet, nary a word was spoken about age discrimination at the WHCOA. Why hasn't anyone jumped on the EEOC for ignoring this blatant in-your-face problem?
We can't work longer if we can't get people to hire us.
4. The case of the invisible senior.
Again, a cultural sea change is needed. How about Hollywood gets the ball rolling? Remember how President Dubya called a private summit of Hollywood's best and brightest after 9/11? He wanted to hear creative ideas from their collective brains about what sort of fresh hells could be unleashed on our nation.
Time to call them back. Let's reimagine the role our elders play in society. Let's anoint them with leaders and cherish their wisdom. At very least, let's stop holding them in disregard.
So listen up, Hollywood -- the image-making arm of government: Older people want to see themselves in different scenarios besides in the rocking chair. Enough with the stupid old people jokes -- no, we are not all hard-of-hearing -- and the other false assumptions. I'm still waiting for a single movie or TV show to accurately portray what my life is like. Just the way brown and black characters are stereotyped, so are older ones. The difference is nobody is talking about it -- including at the WHCOA.
5. Adjust the corporate workplace, in more ways than one.
For financial stuff: Increase the amount we can contribute to 401k plans. In 2014, if you were 50 or older, you could contribute up to $23,000, which included your allowable "catch-up" amount. Why put a ceiling on it at all? And why shouldn't you be allowed to contribute to a traditional IRA past age 70½? Why have a required minimum distributions at age 70½ if the person is still earning income from work?
For other improvements: Value experience as much as you do innovation and understand that the two aren't mutually exclusive.
And next time, the WHCOA should invite me to the party.