Claremont Insider: Gray Matter

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Gray Matter

The 4/30/07 edition of the New Yorker featured an article on aging by Atul Gawande. The piece, titled "The Way We Age Now," talked about how the process of aging works and, more importantly, how our society has failed to come to terms with demographic changes posed by our longer life spans.

Gawande used the term "rectangularization" to describe some of these changes. He noted that in the past, societies were comprised of demographic pyramids with the youngest age groups having the most numbers, tapering to smaller and smaller totals as the ages got higher.

Now, though, more people are living longer, and families are having fewer children. Instead of tapering like a pyramid,the sides of the demographic picture are straighter, more like a rectangle. Gawande reported, "Today, we have as many fifty-year-olds as five-year-olds. In thirty years, there will be as many people over eighty as there are under five."

Households are becoming smaller and older, and population growth comes mainly from immigration. The demographics really point to a need to reallocate more resources towards older people. But generally, we aren't really addressing the looming problem by doing things like training more geriatricians, or on an individual level, saving for retirement. As Gawande said:

Americans haven’t come to grips with the new demography. We cling to the notion of retirement at sixty-five—a reasonable notion when those over sixty-five were a tiny percentage of the population, but completely untenable as they approach twenty per cent. People are putting aside less in savings for old age now than they have in any decade since the Great Depression. More than half of the very old now live without a spouse, and we have fewer children than ever before—yet we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone.

As we've argued in the past, here in Claremont we cling to false notions about our town's population that no longer fit the reality. Although we provide many support services like the senior center lunch program and have a city Committee on Aging, we have not looked carefully or rationally at how we're allocating our financial resources.

Claremont's youth population is simply not growing as fast as it's over-65 cohort. Claremont schools, in fact, have had to import kids from surrounding cities in order to prop up enrollment. One suspects if a survey were ever done of our city's youth sports groups, a significant portion of those children would be from outside Claremont as well. The city policy for those groups is that they have to have at least 51% of their kids from within the city, but that leaves room for many who do not live here and whose parents do not pay taxes into the system to support the facilities being used.

We haven't considered changing our resource allocation to meet the realities of the demographic changes already taking place. We act as if we will have an ever growing youth population, and spend lavishly on that group, when we really should be devoting a larger piece of the pie to the group that is growing the fastest--the 65-and-over crowd.

We're set to spend over $10 million on a new sports park, and have devoted a significant amount of time to a new Youth Master Plan, but have we stopped to consider if the mix we have is right given what the demographics show? Or are we just stuck in the same place, fiscal wheels spinning?

In the end, we seem to be getting older, but not much wiser.