With great fanfare, the first baby boomer turned 65 on January 1, 2011, ushering in the new, gray society. We—I'm one of the 76 million baby boomers—were expected to transform aging: better educated, healthier, reared in an era of unprecedented prosperity, committed to individual autonomy, we would singlehandedly turn retirement from a time of decline, disability, and despair into a period of travel, adventure, and personal growth. If we did become ill, despite regular exercise, a wholesome diet, and a goodly dose of vitamins, we would demand, and receive, the fruits of American technological ingenuity, vanquishing disease and perhaps even death. Concurrent with the designation of age 70 as "the new 40," we have seen a second, darker narrative emerge: the burgeoning older population will bankrupt Social Security, overwhelm the health-care system, and devastate the economy. The reality embodies elements of both of these visions.
What is indisputable is that the number of older people has increased dramatically and will continue to do so, at least until the last baby boomer turns 65 in 2030. The proportion of the population that is over 65 just about doubled between 1900 (when it stood at 4.1%) and 1950 (when it was 8.1%), and then nearly doubled again in 2015 (when it reached 15%). It is expected to reach 20.9% by 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau 2014). Not only are there more old people today than ever before, but they are also living longer. Average life expectancy is now 78.8 at birth—compared to 47.3 in 1900 and 68.2 in 1950. Even more startling [End Page 457] is life expectancy at age 65, which is a better measure of the far end of the age distribution. This statistic wasn't even computed in 1900; in 1950, it was 13.9 years; and by 2000 it had reached 17.6 years. Today, it's just under 20 (National Center for Health Statistics 2011). But why exactly do all these numbers matter? Why are they expected to have such a profound effect on the economy and the social fabric of society?
They matter because of the specific challenges presented by each of the four principal ways that older people experience aging: as a time of robust health, of dementia, of frailty, or of advanced illness that ends in death. Those older individuals who find themselves vigorous and in good health, the people I call robust, face an existentialist predicament: with no children to parent and no jobs to pursue, they may find they have lost their sense of meaning and self-worth. Those older people who are frail or have dementia, as well as those with advanced illness, discover that old age has brought dependency, a loss of identity, or the fear of extinction. For the families of old people, along with their communities and indeed the nation as a whole, the demographic shift strains the Medicare and Social Security budgets, alters job prospects for the young (creating, for instance, greater demand for nursing aides than for elementary school teachers), and affects which goods and services must be produced (more walkers than strollers, for example).
We begin this issue with two broad overviews of the problems of aging, one from the perspective of the humanities, written by historian/theologian/lawyer David Barnard, and one from the vantage point of the social sciences and epidemiology, written by sociologist turned bio-demographer S. Jay Olshansky and ecologist and population biologist Bruce Carnes.
In "Aging as Problem and as Mystery," Barnard argues that we humans live in a world of problems, for which we seek technical solutions, and a realm of mystery, where we strive for introspection and engagement. Where we go wrong with aging is when we fail to achieve adequate balance between these two domains. The proper response to frailty, for example, is not to seek to obliterate it by conquering aging itself, but rather to accept some of the losses associated with aging as part of the human condition. Barnard advocates working toward ways of finding meaning, purpose, and engagement in the face of finitude and vulnerability. The appropriate response to...