Geezer Nation

By: David Kusnet
The New York Times Book Review, February 14, 1999

A successful investment banker and former Secretary of Commerce, Peter G. Peterson has carved out a second career as a Cassandra in search of a catastrophe. A "deficit hawk" since the early 1980's, he has written several books and many magazine articles warning that the Federal budget would balloon and the economy would decline without deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Now that the Federal deficit has been eliminated and the economy reinvigorated without his harsh remedies, Peterson has found a longer-term problem for his program to solve. First in "Will American Grow Up Before it Grows Old?" and now in "Gray Dawn," Peterson warns that with increasing life expectancies and declining birthrates, almost one in four people in the developed world will be 65 or older by 2030. And in the United States, "the benefit outlays for just five programs - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Federal civilian and military pensions - will exceed total Federal revenues by the year 2030."

Much of this is familiar to readers of "Will American Grow Up Before it Grows Old?" Indeed, "Gray Dawn" includes many anecdotes, catch phrases and quotations that appeared in the earlier book. But unlike its predecessor, "Gray Dawn" explores the aging of the entire developed world and offers a provocative introduction to an issue whose implications extend well beyond government budgets.

Thinking globally helps Peterson become less alarmist and more analytical. With the highest fertility rate in the developed world, an openness to immigrants and a tradition of private pension plans, the United States, he acknowledges, should be better able than its counterparts to cope with the "age wave." In many of the most interesting sections of "Gray Dawn," Peterson explores the social, cultural and geopolitical consequences of the aging of advanced societies - issues that he has been among the first commentators to address comprehensibly.

How will we care for growing numbers of the oldest of the old - people 85 or older? How will we develop the productive capacity of today's young people who will be tomorrow's workers and taxpayers? And will national identities erode or xenophobic movements arise as advanced societies accept more immigrants to shore up their shrinking work forces? These questions will dominate public debate, and Peterson deserves credit for raising them.

Still, he returns to his preoccupation with painful prescriptions, like raising the retirement age well past 65. He avoids the issue of how to humanize work, easing physical or emotional strains so that workers could stay on their jobs longer. And even when it comes to those who find work more exciting than exhausting, Peterson would have done well to admonish his corporate colleagues. As long as technical and managerial employees are passed over for promotions at 40 and downsized at 50, it will be difficult to keep them in the work force at 70, except as greeters at retail stores or hamburger flippers at fast-food restaurants.

For all his revulsion against Social Security, which he calls a "Ponzi scheme" that has undermined the American virtues of self-reliance and filial obligation, Peterson would have done well to ask why American's largest generation, the baby boomers, were the children of an American that had only recently created social insurance programs. Bringing so many children into the world was an act of faith by families who believes that their fellow citizens would honor their obligations to each other, across the lines of class and generation. Now, as Peterson observes, our future depends upon the productivity of a relatively smaller number of children - many of whom are growing up in poverty or in immigrant families. While it is important to secure the fiscal soundness of Social Security, it is just as urgent to strengthen the bonds of social solidarity that the program represents and our nation still requires.

Global Action on Aging
PO Box 20022, New York, NY 10025
Phone: +1 (212) 557-3163 - Fax: +1 (212) 557-3164


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