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Aging Populations Are Not a Crisis — Capitalism Is

The idea that an aging global population is an economic crisis is an effort to con us into accepting neoliberal reforms.

Raging Grannies march in Portland, OR, on June 19, 2016. The idea that an aging global population is an economic crisis is an effort to con us into accepting neoliberal reforms. (Photo: Major Clanger / Flickr)

As a professor of education for almost 20 years and eldercare giver for more than 10 years, I’ve spent the better part of my life experiencing how policy shapes practices of care.

Simply put, the lives of young people are intimately tied to the health and well-being of older adults. That is, social expenditure at the beginning and end of life makes for greater social stability for all.

For example, funding after school programs enables 50 million working parents to keep their jobs and, thus, provide better care for their children; and Meals on Wheels helps keep the elderly in their homes, which not only enables better care, but also does so at a fraction of the cost.

While other nations have figured out that economies of care pay in dividends, the US continues to struggle with balancing the people vs. profits equation. Trumpcare would have only exacerbated this calculus with the greatest impact imposed on society’s most vulnerable — the young and the old. As such, the AARP, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Hospital Association (AHA) played no small part in the bill’s downfall.

While the AARP and others may have wrestled a momentary stay against draconian cuts to health care, the impasse seems insurmountable. Or is it? While groups opposing and groups supporting GOP visions of a market-based system differ across multiple variables, both ultimately factor in age-as-cost (the aged = deserving class, worthy of cost, vs. the aged = human surplus, expendable cost). In other words, they all treat the elderly as if they exist out of any particular socioeconomic or cultural context. It is only within modernist, capitalist societies, that the aging body is prefigured as a crisis of decreased labor power and increased social expenditure.

Indeed, policy analysts have long obsessed over the coming “demographic storm,” linking the “crisis” of global aging to everything from declining GDPs to threatened global security. Such predictions, however, not only presume that neoliberal capitalism will continue unabated, but also the particular view on aging that arises from that presumption. Yet, both are on their way toward obsolescence.

So, what if the coming demographic shift was actually an opportunity and not a crisis? Stated differently, what if we allowed ourselves to imagine life beyond neoliberalism and in a post-productive society?

In this scenario, the aging masses present a tremendous opening for rethinking the outmoded relationships we have drawn between work and existence, economic growth and production, and age to declining yield.

For instance, rather than perceive the aging workforce as a drag on productivity, why not imagine the increasingly healthy population of 50- to 64-year-olds as a flexible labor pool that could potentially relieve work stress for younger adults?

Instead of engaging in global hand-wringing about rising unemployment, why not plan for a work-life that includes intentional career breaks, with an older workforce filling the gaps?

Perhaps it’s time to take seriously the idea of a universal basic income that would unhinge “work” from market imperatives, moving us toward forms of labor defined by love, service, education and justice. If nothing else, an older, more seasoned workforce would serve as a welcome intervention to the false notion that wealth buys happiness, pointing us toward a new horizon beyond the productivist logics of capital.

At the very least, if we are going to free our imaginations about the future, we need to refuse the manufactured crisis of aging as a politics being sold as yet another ruse for neoliberal reform strategies. Not just because we already know that subjecting health care to the “logic” of the marketplace will do more harm than good, but also because our collective refusal will help to disentangle aging from the discourse of crisis. Particularly as we approach the point of no return with climate change, replacing our fixation with profit margins and accumulation could prove to be an important first step to imagining lives measured by satisfaction and sustainability.

Toward this end, we first need to ensure the basic health and well-being of the elderly by joining the AARP, AHA and AMA in rejecting any legislation that places profits over people. Next, let’s change the narrative about the elderly-as-crisis, and shift toward more generative views that embrace the wisdom, composure and satisfaction that comes with age. Finally, we must hospice the neoliberal era toward its own death and accept what is already evident: lives defined by collectivity, reciprocity and balance hold the greatest promise for human beings and the rest of nature.

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